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Endless Summer Book 4: Daughter of Vaanu

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Jake

I woke up with her voice in my head again. Alodia. My Princess. My wife. Five years on, I can still hear her. And not just the last message she recorded for us all as a goodbye. I can hear her laugh. I hear her bantering back and forth with me, rallying the Catalysts with a rousing speech, putting our enemies in their place with her voice full of venom. I hear her crying. I hear her whispering tenderly, telling me that she loves me.

I've got her last message saved to my cloud, my phone, my computer...I even burned it onto an entire pack of CD's because the very idea that I might ever lose her last words sends me into a panic attack.

In the five years since I lost her, I haven't loved again. I've had cheap, meaningless sex, paid for a few dinners, had a few bought for me. I've made friends who wanted more and who felt me pull away once they started to reach towards the deeper layers of my heart, the layers that belong to my family, to the other Catalysts, and the deepest, most abiding layers to her. Some of them got angry when I broke it off. Some of them quietly gave in. One guy tried so damn hard to save our relationship. I almost gave in to him. He loved me so much, and it was so damned hard not to love him back. Truthfully, I did...really, I did. Or...I was beginning to. I was beginning to think that I could open myself up again. But then I dreamt of her. I dreamt of dancing with her on New Year's Eve at Elysian Lodge. I dreamt of our handfasting. And then the dream ended with my arms around her and the crystal pillar until both vanished and I was left alone. I woke up with tears strangling me. I tried to cry quietly, tried not to disturb the man beside me. But they started coming faster and harder, and I couldn't stop myself from whispering her name over and over until he finally woke up and heard the name on my lips.

He knew I'd been married. He knew my wife was gone. He didn't know how, because how could I explain it? That night, he held me while I cried, and it comforted me. He was there when I left for work the next morning. But by the time I got back, he was gone, and so were all his things. There was a note from him on my pillow. It was long and loving and angry and it made me cry again, but it basically said what I realized was probably the truth: I wasn't over her. I probably never would be.

That was six months ago. I'm not sure why he's slipped in among the thoughts of her as I lie in bed at 6am, trying to convince myself that if I get up now I won't go straight for a flask. Her last message is playing on my phone. When it ends, I roll over and start it up again for the fifth time, rolling onto my back and letting her voice wash over me until the part where she speaks to me directly.

Jake...I promised you a year and a day, and I'm sorry I won't be able to fulfill that vow. What we had is very rare. I'm grate--”

My eyes fly open as her voice abruptly cuts off. Fear bites deep in my gut as I roll over to look at the screen. Incoming call from...Diego. My breath shakes as I let it out. Irritation floods in, washing away the fear. I snatch up the phone, thumbing the green button.

“Fuck you, Diego, you scared the shit outta me!”

“Sorry, did I wake you?”

“No, you asshole, I was listening! Your stupid phone call cut her off!”

There's a pause on the other end. “...Jake, please tell me you're not drunk already.”

“Fuck you. What're you doing calling my worthless ass at six in the fucking morning?”

“I need to see you. Today if at all possible.”

I sit up, rubbing my eyes. “I thought you were in California with your folks this week?”

“Yeah. I was. Now I'm in Louisiana looking for you. I'm at a motel in Baton Rouge.”

“The hell? Diego, we're all gonna be in the Caribbean in two weeks. Can't this wait?”

“No. Not really. ...It's about Alodia.”

It's my turn to pause. “...What about Alodia?”

“I don't want to say over the phone. I can make it to Pearl River in two hours. Let me buy you breakfast when I get there, okay?”

I groan. “Fine. Fucking fine...you know where to find me.”

“Yeah. Stay off the bottle 'till I get there, okay?”

“...Fuck you.”

“Love you, too, Jake,” he replies sardonically. I thumb off the call and toss the phone back on the pillow. I got two hours to make myself look like a functioning human being, and I'm damn sure not getting any more sleep before then. I drag myself out of bed and stumble into the shower, the memory of her voice still ringing in my head.

Five years since she gave away her existence to save the world. I found Mike on the other side of the island. He was alive, and so was Lundgren, both with their memories intact, including the memory of Mike's sacrifice. I guess it was Alodia's last gift to me. I was scared shitless to find Lundgren alive. Every instinct told me to run, but that felt too much like spitting on her grave. So we fought. The vision Vaanu had granted me was destined to come true. And for awhile, I road that high. But then the knowledge that she'd never share in my triumph set in, and I was back to where I started. I'm living alone at my grandparents' old place these days. The other Catalysts don't like me living alone since Alodia's not with me. Mike and I lived together for awhile, but after Lundgren's trial, he wanted to go back to his folks in Portland. I didn't blame him. After what he went through he needed a support system, and once the trial was over and I had nothing but my grief to focus on, I just wasn't enough. He did offer to let me stay with him. For awhile, I did. But we were both wrestling with our own crap, and I'm not proud to admit it, but I know I just made things harder on him. After a few knock-down-drag-out fights over dumb shit, we both accepted that it was better for our friendship if we kept our distance while we got past the worst. We call once a week to check in, keep each other from going too far off the deep end. For awhile, I stayed with my sister in Los Angeles, which had the advantage of making it easy for Diego and me to meet up when he was visiting his folks in Riverside. But that didn't last either.

Thing is...without her, that timer inside me had started running again. Going off and telling me it was time to move on again. And so far, no one I've met or taken to bed since then has made it stop like she did. I'm in Pearl River for now, but I can feel my time here is running short. ...Maybe I will find one of the other Catalysts to hole up with for awhile. Just to get everyone off my back. Or maybe I'll just go back to Costa Rica.

For now, though, I get dressed and wander into the living room and make myself some coffee while I wait for Diego to show up. I plop myself on the couch and turn on the TV, keeping the volume low so I can't really make out individual words. I don't want to listen to anything. I just want something to keep the silence away, and I don't think I can listen to her last words again right now without giving in to the lure of the bottle. I turn on some crappy tabloid talk show and imagine going on one of those things with the other Catalysts. We had opportunities when we got back to the States. I never took any of them. It was hard enough talking to the authorities about what happened on the island without bringing up Alodia. I wasn't looking for any kind of fame or recognition. I just wanted to mourn.

My phone buzzes beside me. Diego's calling again. Two hours have passed already. I thumb the green button.

“Hey. You here?”

“Yeah. Right outside.”

I hang up and wander outside. Diego's there, standing beside what looks like a swanky new car, gleaming deep red in the morning sunlight. At the sight of him, I feel tears threatening again. I didn't even realize how much I missed him. I never realize how much I miss any of them until I see them again. Most of the time, she's the only one it hurts to think about. But now Diego's holding his arms out to me, and I want to bawl like a baby. I choke in down and move in to accept his embrace.

“You look like you're doin' okay,” I murmur.

“And you smell like you took a shower, so that's encouraging. No whiskey breath, either.”

“Sober as a judge, Short Stuff. Promise.”

“Hungry?”

“...Not so much...”

He pulls back and looks me over, frowning. “...You look like you've been losing weight again.”

I shift uncomfortably. “Two pounds,” I admit. “But before that, I'd gained back seven, so I ain't in the red.”

I can see him debating whether to press the issue. Wondering whether I'll pull back if he does. I'm not so sure myself at the moment. Finally he sighs and slings an arm over my shoulders.

“C'mon. I promised you breakfast.”

Fifteen minutes later, we're in a red naugahyde booth at a local diner, digging into plates of pancakes and bacon with biscuits and gravy on the side. I'm more hungry than I realized, and eat enthusiastically, which seems to relax Diego slightly. When I've managed to slow down a little, I wipe my lips and look up at him.

“So...where's Varyyn?”

“He's still in London. Grace and Aleister are keeping him company while I'm stateside.”

“Yeah? How they doing?”

“They're good, if a bit sleep-deprived. Reggie's teething, so...”

“Heh...gotta admit, I can't wait to see the little rugrat...”

Diego grins. “He's pretty frickin adorable...” His mouth twitches slightly. He looks like he's thinking something he's not sure he should say.

“...So...you said you had something to talk to me about? ...Something about Alodia?”

He exhales slowly. “...Yeah. ...How close have you been following the news lately?”

“Close as I ever do...which isn't very. I know who won the national election, know what's been shot up or bombed lately...where the major natural disasters are...”

“...Have you heard what happened at Prescott Industries a few days ago?”

As a matter of fact, the incident did capture my attention. Prescott Industries is the long time rival company of Rourke International. With Rourke in a hospital for the criminally insane, ownership of the company has passed to Aleister and Estela. I suspect Iris had something to do with the fact that his will included both of them. No way Rourke would encourage his children to work together in anything. But for the life of me, I couldn't guess which one of their names was on the will the night Alodia gave herself back to Vaanu. Anyway, a couple nights ago, Silas Prescott unveiled something he called the Prism Gate. He said it was supposed to be a source of renewable energy, but something about the images I saw reminded me so much of the Lernaean Gate that I had to turn my TV off because I was working myself into another panic attack and I still ended up huddled behind the couch sobbing. I read the next morning that the gala had been broken into and the Prism Gate had blown up part of the building. Miraculously, no one was killed, though there were injuries.

“You mean the Prism Gate thing that exploded.”

“Yeah. I was watching the news coverage. Grace and Aleister and Varyyn called me from London the next day. ...They all got the same feeling I did. The Gate is powered by a crystal, and we think the crystal came from La Huerta.”

“There are no more crystals,” I say flatly. “Vaanu took them with it when it departed. When Alodia...”

“I know. I know. But hear me out here. Silas Prescott and Everett Rourke were rivals for years. And back on the island, Alodia did find a note with the Ursa idol that mentioned a Silas. ...What if Silas Prescott does have a crystal from the island, and it somehow managed to survive because he took it off the island before the eruption?”

I sigh. “I dunno, Diego. What if? What if? What does it matter?”

“...I wasn't sure myself. I'm still not really sure. Except...” He pauses, swallowing. “The next evening, I found my mom going through photo albums. I sat down to go through them with her, and I found this.”

He reaches into his messenger bag and pulls out a photo, sliding it across the table toward me. I pick it up and look at it. Immediately, my heart drops.

Two children, maybe two or three years old, are seated at a yellow plastic table, eating sandwiches, sippy cups in front of them. One is a boy immediately recognizable as Diego. The other is a girl with golden blonde hair swept back from her face and held with barrettes. Bright blue eyes reflect the sunlight streaming through the window. Even at that age, her smile is unmistakeable.

“...Holy shit...”

“...Yeah. It's Allie, right? I mean...it looks just like her...”

“Wh-who did your mom say she was?”

“Just a rich girl she used to nanny for. Mama couldn't remember her name. ...But she did say the girl was an orphan. That her aunt and uncle were raising her.”

“...But that...that isn't...” I swallow. “It couldn't be her. I mean, your mom coulda been a nanny for another blonde girl who was being raised by relatives. I mean you built Alodia's backstory outta something, right? Maybe just a vague memory...”

“...That's what I thought, too. At first. But then I was going through some stuff in my old room, and...”

He reaches into his messenger bag again, this time pulling out a battered shoebox. He sets it on the table between us and lifts the lid. On top of a pile of odds and ends are two more photos. I take them out and examine them. The top one shows an eight- or nine-year-old Diego with a backpack on his shoulders, hugging a blonde-haired girl in a crisp white blouse and a pale blue skirt with a pink rose pattern blooming over its surface. The blonde girl also wears a backpack. She's missing her two front teeth, and her tongue pokes adorably through the gap as she grins at the camera over Diego's arms. She looks even more like Alodia than the girl with the sandwich in the first picture. My hands shake as I flip to the second picture. When I see it, I nearly drop it.

...It's Alodia. My Alodia. My Princess. My wife. Not much younger than she was when I met her, and unmistakeable. She's dressed in an elegant burgundy gown with rhinestones on the bodice, and a corsage on her wrist. Diego, in a tuxedo and boutonniere, is with her, posed behind her in front of a formal blue backdrop. Above them, a glittering banner reads: PROM 2014.

“...Senior prom,” Diego murmurs. “...I actually had a date. A real date with a guy I really liked. And she had been asked by this girl. Neither of us were out yet, so we decided we'd go together and get the picture for my parents' sake. ...Prom was a small distaster. Her date didn't show, mine showed up drunk. He and I got kicked out, I spent the night holding his head and cleaning puke off my shoes. Meanwhile, she got one dance from the prom king, who promptly decided to stick his tongue down her throat.”

I stare at him. “...That so...?”

“...I can remember it, Jake. ...I can also remember spending senior prom in my room watching old sitcoms.” He reaches across the table and taps the first picture. “That was the first day of third grade. The first year we went to school together. She went to one of the fancy private schools in Riverside for first and second grade. But one day her class was asked to draw pictures of their best friends. She drew me. But some snotty girl who had decided she was her best friend took offense, and insulted me. ...Allie got kicked out of school for sucker-punching her at recess.”

“...That sounds like her...”

“...Except it never happened. When I had to draw a picture of my best friend, I drew a blonde girl in a fancy dress and told everyone she was my friend who went to a different school. No one believed me, and my story fell apart under cross-examination. Plus the boys made fun of me for drawing a girl in a fancy dress.”

“...Diego, what the fuck is going on here?”

“Shit, Jake, I have no clue. ...But suddenly, I feel like I'm remembering two timelines. One where she existed, exactly as I imagined her, and one where she's just my imaginary friend come to life, who gave herself up to save us all...”

“Which definitely happened. ...And if it didn't, I'm frankly gonna be pissed as hell that I've spent five years mourning my wife for nothing.”

“...But now I have evidence of her existence. Photographic evidence. ...What's more is that I swear I can remember her address in Riverside. I can picture the house. I...haven't driven over there, or even Google mapped it, I admit. A part of me is too scared to...”

“...I don't get it, Diego...I don't understand...”

“I don't either.” His expression starts to waver, his dark eyes sparkling with tears. “...I miss her, Jake. I miss not knowing what she really was. I miss believing that she really was my childhood best friend who stood by me for years. ...I miss believing she would always be a part of my life.”

“...Aw fuck, Diego...please don't make me break down in a diner...”

“I had to see you. I had to show this to you. To the other person in the world who loved her as much as I did. ...I needed you to see it, too. Because if you can see it...if anyone can see it besides me who knows the truth...” He trails off. He's quiet long enough that I start to look in the box again.

“...What's the rest of this stuff?”

“...More keepsakes. More memories that I know don't really exist. ...The friendship bracelet she made me. ...A birthday card she gave me... There's a funny note in there, in her handwriting. With her signature.”

“...And your parents don't remember whether you went to your senior prom?”

“I haven't asked. I'm scared to, just like I'm scared to drive by the house where she grew up.” He bites his lip. “I don't want to ask and have my hopes dashed. I don't want to say what I'm thinking, either, because I don't want to get my hopes up. But...Jake...I think she's coming back.”

… I wasn't gonna do it. I wasn't gonna break down bawling in a goddamn diner. But here I am doing just that. I bury my head in my arms and sob like a baby. I feel Diego's hand on my shoulder and I can't even react for a good twenty minutes. Finally, with my head throbbing and leaking from every orifice, I weakly raise my head.

“Shit...” I whisper. “Goddammit...do you have any idea how hard I wanna believe that?”

“I think I have an inkling, yeah.”

“I'm not sure I dare, though.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. ...But...if it has something to do with Silas Prescott's machine...do you think I should tell the others?”

“No.” I startle myself with the speed of my answer, the lack of hesitation. “...They got hopes I ain't keen to dash, either. ...All my life, I ain't gonna stop hoping. Don't think you are either. But the others...”

“...Yeah. Maybe you're right. Not yet, anyway.”

“Wait until we know more. Maybe by the time we see them we'll be able to decide what we wanna do.”

* * *

I let Diego hang around a couple more days to break the silence and keep me off the bottle. His news shook me deep. I'm scared as fuck to hope, but I can't help it. It's been five years, and it doesn't hurt any less than it did the first day. I just want her back in my arms. I want to smell her hair again, taste her mouth...

Diego tries to distract me, catching me up on how things are going with him and Varyyn, how he's liking teaching. Hartfeld has invited him back a few times as a guest professor. He's taken the invitations, but he admits it hurts to be back there without her. Even if she was never really there. ...But maybe she was after all.

The third day, I wake up to find him packing his duffle. “Headin' out already?”

“Well, I'm not going to eat and run or anything, but I ought to be getting out of your hair. ...Unless you want me to stick around a couple days longer? Varyyn will understand if you do.”

“Nah. I'm fine. Go on back to your husband. ...At least one of us should have someone to hold all through the night...”

He pauses. “Heh...funny. That's exactly the line of thinking that made me push her to sleep with you...”

“Yeah. ...Hilarious...” My phone starts buzzing insistantly. I sigh, snatching it up. My sister's calling. I tap the screen. “Mornin' Rebecca. What's up?”

“Mornin' Jacob. ...You got a minute?”

“For you, sis, always.”

“...This is gonna sound like a weird question. ...What was the name of your wife?”

For a moment, I freeze, my blood fizzing with something like alarm or dread. I cast a glance at Diego, putting a finger to my lips. A couple taps on my screen puts my sister on speaker.

“...Why do you ask?”

“...Answer my question first, Jake.”

“H-her name was Alodia.” Seeing Diego mouth something, I add, “Chandler. Alodia Chandler.”

“...And what did you say happened to her?”

“She...she's gone...”

“Gone where?”

I feel myself starting to sweat. Diego inches closer to me, his face pale. “Rebecca, what's this about?”

She hesitates. I can almost hear her thinking it over. “It's just...you hardly ever talk about what happened to her.”

Diego tiptoes over to his bag and digs something out of it. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see it's a notebook. He pulls out a pen and hastily scribbles something on a page.

“Yeah...” I say into the phone. “It's kinda painful...”

“I know, but...” Rebecca sighs. “...Jake, just tell me you didn't kill her.”

“...The fuck?!” I can't keep the indignation out of my voice. I look over at Diego, who is side-eyeing the phone like it might come to life and bite him. He tiptoes back over to me and holds up the notebook for me to examine. My eyes frantically scan the page.

“Look, I ain't asking because I honestly think you did...”

“Then why the hell are you asking?” I take another look at what Diego's written for me: She disappeared. No body. “Look, Rebecca...I met her in the Caribbean. She was on La Huerta with me when all that shit with Rourke International went down. She disappeared one night, and her body was never found. Probably one of his victims. Or Lundgren's.”

“...Okay...”

“Now will you tell me what the fuck this is about please?”

“...I shouldn't, Jake. ...But you're my baby brother, and I didn't think I could keep this from you. I was goin' over the old records, cleaning stuff out and the like. I came across an old missing persons report among the cold cases. It was filed just about the time you got back. Alodia Rose Chandler, originally of Riverside, California. She disappeared the summer before her senior year at Hartfeld University in Massachusetts, on a trip to La Huerta. The name rang a bell with me, and obviously La Huerta got my attention. The timing was right, and something about it just felt...off to me. ...Did you ever try to contact her family? Ever tell them you were married to her?”

“...I...don't think I ever knew her family...” I reply lamely. My mouth is dry, and my hands are shaking.

“It seems strange that it should end up in cold cases...”

“Yeah...Hey, sis...can I ask you a massive favor?”

“You can ask. Whether or not I do it...”

“It's a lot to ask, but you called me with this information, I think you know you can trust me. ...I need you to keep this under your hat for a little while. Just a few months.”

“Sure. I'll do that.”

I blink. “Wow, really? Just like that?”

“Like you said, I trust you. You're my baby brother. Besides, it's a cold case. Unless you actually have any new evidence...”

“No...I don't. Not yet. ...But five years, I ain't really been able to stop hoping...”

“...I get that. ...Sorry for acting so weird. I guess it's just like I said. Something felt...off.”

“Everything about what happened on La Huerta was off,” I reply flatly. “Someday, sis, I'll tell you everything. ...But for now, I gotta get going. Gotta get ready for work.”

“Sure. Love you, Jake.”

“Love you, too.” My fingers are still shaking as I tap the screen to disconnect the call. I look over at Diego. “...Quick thinking there, Short Stuff.”

“...Jake...” His face is pale. His breath shudders. “...That was...she...”

“...I don't think we can avoid telling the others now,” I murmur. “...Something tells me we got a shitstorm brewing.”

“...A shitstorm that might bring Allie back...”

“I don't know. ...But it would be wrong to keep it from them. We'll tell them when we meet up in a few weeks. Maybe we'll know more by then.”

 

 

Diego

 

 

“Diego!” Allie screams frantically. “Diego, hold on! Please, please hold on!” I feel her hands on my face, but I can't make her out above me. My vision has gone narrow, filling with static at the edges. Every breath hurts, and I can taste blood. My ribs throb where one of the muggers got me with a baseball bat. I remember them holding us down, going through her purse and my pockets and digging out all our cash. I don't think it was supposed to be anything but a mugging, but one of them got off on having us helpless and started getting handsy with Allie. Or maybe he was pissed at her for fighting back and biting him. His companions told him to lay off, but he went for her jeans, so I went for him. That was when his friend got me in the ribs.

Now I'm struggling to breathe, struggling to focus on my best friend's face above me, focus on her tearful voice. A white light fills my vision, making me wince.

“Diego?” A woman's voice, with a soft Southern drawl. “I'm officer Rebecca McKenzie, and you're gonna going to be just fine. We got paramedics on route, so you just gotta stay with us, okay?”

“Stay with me, Diego,” Allie whimpers. “Please for the love of God, stay with me...”

 

I sit up sharply, gasping. A hand beside me finds mine and squeezes it.

“Are you all right, my love?” I exhale slowly, turning to see Varyyn beside me on the small plane bound for La Huerta. I bring his hand to my lips and kiss it.

“I'm okay, sweetheart. ...Just...another dream...”

“...About her?”

I swallow, nodding. “...Another memory that shouldn't be real.” I feel a pair of hands come down on my head from behind me and muss my hair.

“Hey, Professor Soto!” Craig laughs. “Stop whispering with your husband and check out the view to your left! We're almost there!”

I grin and turn to gaze past Varyyn and out the window at the familiar island rapidly growing underneath us. Varyyn presses his nose to the window. “...I never grow tired of seeing it from the sky...”

“I never grow tired of watching you see it from the sky,” I murmur. Turning away from the window, Varyyn smiles at me and leans in to brush my lips with his.

“Heeeeey, you two cool it with the PDA!” Zahra leans around to poke me in the shoulder. “There's a child present!”

“Abababababa!” Reggie babbles, flailing in Aleister's arms.

“Don't worry about Reggie, Z. If he's not traumatized by his parents, he's not gonna be traumatized by these two.”

“I'm much less worried about Diego and Varyyn than I am about the two of you,” Aleister retorts.

“Be nice, sugar,” Grace chides, tweaking her husband's ribs. Aleister yelps with surprised laughter.

“Grace, that tickles!” Reggie abruptly starts to wail in his father's arms, an ear-piercing howl. Murphy, who had been dozing under my feet, leaps to attention, trilling.

“Uh-oh!” Quinn gasps. “Sad baby! Do your ears hurt, Reggie-rabbit?”

“That, or his mouth,” Grace sighs. “Or both. Poor baby boy.” Estela clicks her tongue, turning around in her seat.

“That poor child,” she sighs, plucking the baby from his Aleister's arms. “Come on, Reginald. Come to your Tia Estela. She will make you feel better.” She sinks back into her seat and settles Reggie on her lap.

“I have his teething ring here.”

“No need,” Estela replies. “My finger is perfectly clean and he likes it better.”

“Yup, no doubt about it,” Raj remarks. “If anything could make Estela embrace her Rourke blood, it could only be her cute little nephew.”

“Shut up, Raj,” Estela answers blithely. Settling back in her seat, she begins to sing a lullaby in Spanish.

“I still can't believe any of us have kids,” Sean remarks. “I'm starting to feel old.”

“Sean, you're not even thirty!” Michelle groans. “The only reason you feel old is because you abuse your body for a living!”

“Which is why I'm engaged to a doctor.”

Michelle snorts. “I'm still just a lowly intern. I'm damn lucky to get the time off to come here every year.”

“Yeah, but you're the best intern in that whole hospital. That's why you can get away with anything.”

“Attention all Catalysts, Vaanti, and rugrats!” Jake's voice sounds over the speaker. “Thank you for flying Rourke International, now five years without a supervillain at its helm. As usual, let's take a moment to thank our gracious hosts, Aleister Rourke and Estela Montoya, who thankfully have turned out nothing like their father, and who are kind enough to allow us access to their private family island again this year for the fifth annual Catalyst reunion. We're starting our descent, so if you could get your asses in your seats and buckle up, we'll be on the ground in about ten minutes, barring another time storm or sea monster attack.”

Everyone chuckles at his speech, the same one he gives every year. But I wonder if they hear what I hear, how forced the brightness in his voice is. By the end of the week, he won't be able to hide the pain he's in, but I wonder if anyone besides me realizes how soon it starts biting. I sigh, picking up Murphy and settling him on my lap.

“You remember how this goes, fella? Gotta stay still so you don't go flying all over the place.”

Murphy purrs his agreement and nestles in my arms. We land smoothly and disembark, stepping onto the island where all our lives changed forever. The Celestial is gone, replaced by a building reminiscent of Rosencraft Manor, big enough to comfortably house the eleven remaining Catalysts, plus a few guests. We make our way there to get settled in, all except for Varyyn. It's become our ritual to spend three days at the manorhouse before moving onto Elyys'tel. The Vaanti are more at peace now than they have been in their entire history, now that Aleister and Estela have closed the island to tourists and their society is protected. Varyyn has abdicated his throne, passing the title of elyyshar to Seraxa. But he likes to spend what time he has on La Huerta among his people, getting back to his roots. He exchanges his human disguise for his Vaanti warrior clothes, gives me a kiss goodbye, and takes off for Elyys'tel.

* * *

Our reunion begins as it always does: with a feast, prepared by Raj. Jake and I hold our peace while everyone eats, catching up on what's new in everyone's life. How Sean and Michelle's wedding plans are coming, how they've even managed to set a date with Sean being the Condors' star player and Michelle being run off her feet at the hospital. How big Reggie is getting, how Rourke International is holding up under its new management. How Zahra is managing to balance her band with her career as R.I.'s head of security. Grace's latest art show.

We discuss the success of the Kelly Foundation and how Quinn's parents are slowly rediscovering their love. She never told them that her Rotterdam's ever came back, so she has never felt the need to explain why it went away for good. They still put it down to the experimental treatments she went through before the island.

Estela's got a new boyfriend in San Trobida, whom she strongly hints was a former resistance operative. Raj's next show is going to be shot in Tokyo. Craig is excited about the new video game he's helping to design. The Ultra Bowl series has been a huge moneymaker, but he pitched an idea for a game based on our adventures on La Huerta, and it seems his teammates are getting behind it. We all chatter excitedly about that for awhile, until the others gradually start to realize that Jake isn't joining in.

“...How about you, Jake?” Michelle asks. “What's new with you?”

Jake looks down at his plate. “Ah...you know. Not much. Living at my grandparents' old place in Pearl River. ...Tending bar...”

There is a moment of awkward silence. The first few years, with Lundgren's trial and everything, it made sense for Jake to be taking things slow as he got settled back in. But now, five years later, I think everyone's finally understanding what has been clear to me for a few years now: Jake isn't moving on. He isn't getting over her. He can't let her go. Sean reaches over to grip his shoulder.

“...We all miss her,” he says softly.

“...Not like I do,” Jake replies, not unkindly. He's just stating a fact. No one could possibly miss Allie more than Jake does. ...Except me. Me with the memories that shouldn't exist.

Raj clears his throat. “On that note, I think it's a good time for me to point out that it's getting dark out. I think it's time to light the bonfire.”

The bonfire has become another ritual of ours over the last five years. Each step is precise, and carried out with reverence and solemnity. Back in Riverside or London or Hartfeld, I can appreciate how superstitious it all is. But on the shores of La Huerta, it's how we honor her and her sacrifice. And it's powerful, almost magical. When I think about all she was...it's really no wonder the Vaanti built their society around her.

Grace settles a sleeping Reggie into a papoose on her chest. Raj has mixed our signature cocktails, the exact same drinks he fixed each of us on our third night at The Celestial when we were fighting over what to do next. A twelfth drink is also prepared. The one Jake made for her beside the pool on that very first night, when she asked him to make a drink inspired by her. We make our way down to the beach by way of the pool, leaving our drinks on the bar counter while we go to build the fire. When it's roaring and crackling away beautifully, we each cut a bit of bark from the nearest tree, carving our Hadean signs into the backs with a knife passed between us. Jake cuts two pieces, carving the sign of Andromeda into one of them. We gather in a circle around the bonfire. Jake starts us off, throwing his first piece of bark onto the flame.

“Lupus. The Wolf. Jacob Lucus McKenzie.”

I follow suit. “Canis. The Dog. Diego Ricardo Ortiz Soto.”

“Cygnus. The Swan. Grace Tamara Hall-Rourke.”

“Aquila. The Eagle. Sean Marcus Gayle.”

“Draco. The Dragon. Estela Montoya Rourke.”

“Delphinus. The Dolphin. Quinn Erin Kelly.”

“Serpens. The Snake. Everett Aleister Rourke the Second.”

“Corvus. The Crow. Zahra Yasmin Namazi.”

“Centaurus. The Centaur. Raj Aditya Bhandarkhar.”

“Ursa. The Bear. Kuan-yu Craig Hsiao.”

“Pavo. The Peacock. Michelle Thuy Nguyen.”

Jake holds the second piece of bark reverently over the flame. “All Adds Up. Eleven catalysts made the twelfth. She was born of Vaanu, nurtured and shaped by our hopes and our dreams, our loves and our losses. Our fears, and our hatreds. She was born to bring us all hope. Andromeda. The Chained Woman. The Endless. Alodia. We love you and miss you. With all of us gathered here around this fire, on this island, we give you back a measure of the hope and the love you gave to us, sending it out among the stars to find you wherever you are now.”

He tosses the bark onto the fire, and we all join hands, murmuring in unison. “Two-thousand, one-hundred, thirty-nine. May every cycle be remembered and rewarded.”

I feel Jake and Grace squeeze my hands before releasing them. We all collect our drinks and regroup around the fire. I pull out my phone and let her final message play. We close our eyes and let her voice wash over us, reverent and silent save for those who can't hold back their tears.

“...Our summer is over now, but another will come soon. When it does, imagine me there with you. Spending our days on the beach, watching every sunset melt into the sea, and gazing at stars that fill our hearts with wonder. Because with you is exactly where I will be.”

I turn off my phone and put it back in my pocket. I watch the others brushing tears from their eyes.

“Happy Reunion, everyone. Here's to five years.” I raise my glass. “And here's to Alodia.”

“To Alodia,” the others echo, raising their glasses.

A high-pitched yelp of alarm from Murphy makes me jump. Reggie starts awake and lets out an enraged howl. Murphy pays him no mind, yapping insistantly. He's leapt to his paws, his attention pinned on the treeline. We turn, following his gaze. My heart wedges in my throat.

… She's there. Allie is there, standing at the treeline, the moonlight reflecting off her fair skin and golden-blonde hair. She casts her clear blue gaze between the eleven of us. She flexes her fingers, a shy, almost nervous smile curving her lips.

“...Hey, guys. ...Did someone call me?”

 

Chapter Text

Aleister

For a pregnant moment, the only sound is my son, wailing with irritation at having been awakened. Grace instinctively puts her arms around him and bounces from side to side, stroking his back, but even she isn't taking her eyes off Alodia.

“Alodia!” Jake breaks the stunned silence, dropping his glass and racing to take his wife in his arms, sinking to his knees with her tangled in his embrace. Alodia holds him back, pressing her face into his shoulder. Jake's whole body spasms with sobs. The rest of us start to edge closer to the treeline as Jake pulls back to press his mouth to hers, tears streaming down his face. “Alodia...Princess...are you real? Are you here? Please be real...”

“I'm here,” she murmurs back. “I think I'm real...”

“...Holy shit!” Craig finally exclaims. “It worked!”

A part of me can't believe that after five years, anything that comes out of Craig's mouth could be absurd enough to stop me in my tracks, but somehow he keeps finding ways to top himself.

“What in the heavens are you talking about?!”

“Alodia's back, dude! Five years we've been doing this voodoo, and it's finally paid off!”

“Wha...voodoo?! For heavens' sake, it was a ritual of remembrance! A way to honor our old friend, not ressurrect her!”

“I dunno,” Zahra murmurs. “I'm looking at pretty convincing evidence that it might have been a little more than that.”

“I think I'm with Zahra on this,” Quinn agrees.

“Do you honestly believe we've been unknowingly casting magic spells for the last five years?! Why would it suddenly work now?!”

“Aleister, shut up!” My head snaps towards Diego, who is kneeling beside Jake and Alodia, stroking the back of her head tenderly. Something in his voice makes any desire to snap back at him wither. He turns his attention back on Alodia. “...Allie? Are you okay?”

Alodia peers over Jake's shoulder, casting her eyes over her surroundings. She spots the manorhouse on the hill. “Are...are we on Sharktooth Isle?”

“No...we're on the main island...The Celestial...” he trails off. “...Wait...what's the last thing you remember?”

“Th...the last thing I really vividly remember is being on The Celestial's rooftop. I touched the crystal to let Vaanu take me back. ...It...all gets a little fuzzy after that...”

We're all silent for a moment. Then Raj pipes up. “Hey, why don't we go inside and see what's left over from the feast. We can bring you up to speed while you eat.”

Alodia offers us a shaky smile. “I...think I'd like that...” She yelps a little as Jake shifts, wrapping his arm over her shoulder and lifting her up in a bridal carry. “Woah! Jake, I'm pretty sure I can walk...”

“Princess, if you think I'm ever letting you go again, you're nuts.” Alodia doesn't reply, but the way she winds her other arm around his neck strikes me as consent. We all start to file toward the manorhouse. Estela hesitates as we pass the pool bar, where the twelfth cocktail is waiting. I pause, watching my half-sister as she studies the glass. Finally, she plucks it off the counter, marches down the beach and dumps it into the sea.

“What was that about?” I ask softly as she returns.

“It's what we do every year,” she murmurs back. “...Call me superstitious, but with Alodia standing in front of us, it feels like bad luck not to complete the ritual.”

“Do you really think--”

“I don't know what to think, Aleister. I didn't think this island had anything left for us but sad memories. If there's still any magic at all left here...if it's enough to really bring her back...”

“...If there is any magic left, we shouldn't tempt it. ...Perhaps you are right.” She nods, and we silently pick up the pace, catching up with the others.

At least whatever has happened to her over these past five years does not seem to have damaged Alodia's appetite. We get her into the manorhouse and Raj fixes her a plate of leftovers, which she immediately tears into like she hasn't seen a morsel in days. I doubt she even tastes it. Jake and Diego stay close on either side of her, passing glances between them. Jake's arm stays firmly draped over her shoulder. Ocassionally, Diego glances over at me and Grace.

When Alodia starts to slow down a little, I clear my throat. “...I am sure you must have questions about now...”

Alodia pauses, a forkful of citrus jasmine rice halfway to her mouth. She lowers her hand. “I'm sure all of you do, too. ...I'm sure a lot of our questions are the same.” She pauses for a moment. “What year is it?”

“2023. Five years since we left La Huerta. It was January of 2018 when we got back to the United States. ...My father was arrested and convicted of kidnapping as well as several counts of murder and attempted murder. He is currently living in a hospital for the criminally insane. By some miracle, which I suspect Iris had a hand in, Estela and I were named as joint heirs in his will. We each own half of Rourke International, and the whole of La Huerta. ...It's officially a private nature sanctuary now. The Vaanti are left in peace, and the eleven of us have come here every summer since you left us.”

“...Then...the Vaanti survived...?”

“Varyyn abdicated his throne,” Diego adds. “Seraxa is the elyyshar now. ...Varyyn is living with me in London. But yeah, in general, the Vaanti are thriving. ...Though we haven't seen hide nor hair of the Anachronists in five years...”

Alodia's hand finds Jake. “...What about Mike...?”

I see Jake's fingers tighten around her hand. “...He's alive, Princess. We found him Stateside. ...Lundgren, too. But we beat him. He's locked up for good.”

Her free hand flies to her mouth, tears gathering in her eyes. “...I can't believe I managed that...I didn't know if I would be able to...I was basically begging Vaanu to turn back that moment...”

“...Guess that explains why Lundgren got brought back, too,” he murmurs with a rueful smile. “I ain't complaining, long as I got Mike back...”

A tense silence settles over the table. There is a proverbial elephant in the room, the one big question that no one dares to ask, because we somehow know that Alodia will not have an answer for us: how did she get here? And then the follow-up question to that one, whose answer I dread: is she back to stay, or will we lose her again?

It's Zahra who finally braves the unknown. “...Okay, so...you don't remember any of where you've been for the last five years?”

“...I wasn't even sure how much time had passed,” Alodia answers. “I only knew that time had passed at all because you all look different enough that I knew it wasn't the same night I left. ...Plus Grace has a baby strapped to her chest...”

“Oh!” Grace exclaims. “Goodness, you haven't even met Reginald...”

“...Not officially. But I've seen him. In one of the visions Vaanu gave me.”

Diego sighs. “...Jake...I think this might be a good time to tell everyone what's been happening since the Prism Gate incident. And...” he glances at me and Grace in turn. “...it might be time to talk about the Prism Gate incident in general.”

“...Ohhh...” Raj winces. “...Did you guys see that, too?”

“I did,” Craig confirms. “And Z. We...figured it would come up here tonight.”

“Wait...so did everyone see the same thing we saw?” Diego looks around the table. All around, nodding heads confirm it. Alodia slowly raises her hand.

“...Um...I didn't...”

I run a hand through my hair, exhaling nervously. Slowly, I explain about my father's rivalry with Silas Prescott, and Prescott's crystalline-powered project called the Prism Gate, and its failure on the night of its unveiling. ...I slowly fold in my suspicions about the crystal's origins. Alodia watches me silently, her expression unreadable, which is more than a little unnerving. In all the time I knew her, she was never guarded with her emotions. I realize in retrospect that because we needed her to be warm and open then, that was who she became. But the thought of her being different from the girl we knew then scares me.

“...But that doesn't make sense,” Raj points out. “After Alodia merged with Vaanu, the crystals disappeared.”

“The crystals on the island disappeared. Silas Prescott said in his speech that he and his wife discovered the crystal on an expedition twenty-five years ago. And people were coming and going from the resort here well before the eruption...”

“...The island itself existed for millions of years,” Alodia confirms softly. “...I may not have come into being until the eleven of you entered the time bubble, but the island was here.”

“Right. I don't know how much power such a crystal would have outside the island, but evidently, it has enough to cause quite an explosion...”

“...And you think that's the reason Alodia was able to come back?” Michelle asks.

“I don't know.”

“Is she going to stay back?” Sean adds. “...Or is Vaanu basically broken again?”

“Surely you don't think I know the answer to that,” I answer irritably.

“No, I don't, Aleister. ...But it's a question someone needed to ask aloud. We're all thinking it.”

Silence settles over the table again, heavy with dread. Diego finally speaks again. “Look...Jake and I have some news. We were waiting for the right moment to share it. And I don't think we're going to find a better one.”

With obvious reluctance, he stands and retreats from the room. He returns a few minutes later with an old shoebox in hand.

“What is that?” Alodia asks.

“...It's...mementoes from my past. ...From...our past, Allie. I was watching the Prism Gate coverage from my parents' place in Riverside. Over the next few days...things started appearing that shouldn't have existed. ...Evidence of the past we built up for you before the cycle was broken. Our childhood in Riverside together.”

Jake rubs a hand over his face. “...There's...there's also a missing persons report. On you, Princess. It's a cold case. Five years old. Alodia Chandler, disappeared the summer before her senior year at Hartfeld University. My sister's a cop in LA, and she says she found it cleaning out the cold cases. ...I never told her what happened to you, but I did let her know I'd been married to a woman named Alodia...”

No one speaks for a moment. Diego puts the box down on the table in front of us and lifts the lid. One by one, he lifts out pieces of evidence. Pictures of the two of them as children. At their senior prom. A newspaper clipping about a junior gymnastics team, complete with a photo of Alodia and four other small, slim girls holding up medals and grinning into the camera. A friendship bracelet of silky woven threads. A birthday card.

“...The big thing for me is that I can remember growing up with you in Riverside,” Diego says softly. “...And I can remember growing up without you. ...I remember the small disaster that was our senior prom, and I can remember spending my senior prom at home alone...”

Alodia's placid facade starts to crack. With shaking hands, she reaches across the table and pulls the birthday card toward her, opening it carefully. Her mouth twists a little as she starts to read aloud.

“...'Happy 18th Birthday to my favorite dork. Hope it's more fun than a laser battle in space with pirates and dinosaurs. May the force be with you. Love, Allie'...”

Her voice breaks, catching in her throat. She takes a breath, then another, then promptly dissolves into tears. Jake pulls her into his arms.

“You're okay, Princess. You're gonna be okay.”

He can't know that. But I don't believe I should say that in front of her. Not when she is clinging to Jake as if he is anchoring her to existence, trembling so violently that I can feel the vibrations through the table between us.

I find Grace's hand and grip it, perhaps just a little too tightly, but she doesn't complain. She squeezes back. I glance over and see that tears are slipping down her dark cheeks as well. Quinn and Raj have also given in to the flood of emotion filling the dining room. It feels strangely like grief, even though the very person we're grieving is sitting right in front of us. Then, so abruptly that I don't even register it at first, the mood shifts from heavy sorrow to urgency and alarm. Michelle's eyes go wide.

“Jake, let her go.”

Jake hasn't felt the shift yet. He grips his wife tighter. “I ain't letting her go.”

“Jake, she's about to hyperventilate! Get off her!” She leaps up, running around to the other side of the table as Jake pulls back sharply. Alodia, her breath coming in shallow, violent gasps, abruptly pitches forward, crumpling to the floor.

“Alodia!” Jake cries, barely managing to break her fall. Diego drops down beside her, and Michelle kneels at her other side.

“All right, everyone except Jake and Diego out!” she orders. “Give her some space, please!”

“You heard the doctor.” Estela takes Quinn gently by the shoulders, leading her out. “Come on, everyone.”

We reluctantly trickle out of the dining room, gathering in a crowd just outside. A scream from Alodia follows us out. We collectively grimace. The agony in her voice is unmistakable.

“...Dammit,” Estela growls. “What the hell is happening?”

No one answers. What could we say? It isn't as if we have any idea. For all I know, Craig was right, and our little ritual of remembrance was indeed some sort of magic spell we were weaving without our knowledge. Or...more likely, it has to do with Silas Prescott's Prism Gate. It was after the Prism Gate incident that Diego started to find evidence of her existence before the island.

Another cry of agony goes through us like a knife. Quinn chokes, pressing a hand to her mouth. Of course, Reginald starts to wail again. Grace sighs. “I...should feed him...” She looks hesitantly at the door to the dining room. I shake my head.

“I don't think anyone will flinch if you feed him here,” I murmur. She nods, and sits down against the wall, opening her blouse. I sit down beside her while she exposes her breast and guides our son to latch on. In spite of the fearful sounds coming from the dining room, he settles down, suckling contentedly, his tiny fingertips working the fabric of his mother's blouse. I scoot closer to my wife, stroking my son's head, capped with a dark layer of fuzzy hair. ...Would he exist without the woman screaming in the next room?

The dining room doors burst open. Jake emerges with Alodia cradled in his arms, Diego and Michelle close behind. Sean catches Michelle's arm as she passes.

“What's happening? What's wrong with her?”

“I don't know, Sean,” she answers grimly. “Right now, though, she's in a lot of pain, and all I think any of us can do is help her ride it out. ...I'm going to get my med kit. I don't know if I dare to give her anything, but I need to keep an eye on her vitals.”

Sean reluctantly lets her go as Jake and Diego disappear into Jake's room. Eight Catalysts are left fearful and bewildered in their wake. Eventually, it seems there is nothing else to do but drift back to our rooms and try to sleep.

* * *

I sleep for an hour or two, and I think Grace does, too. But when I wake again, around two in the morning, she is standing over Reggie's crib, peering down at him. I come up behind her, winding my arms around her waist. She leans back into me.

“...Do you think she's going to be okay?” she asks me.

“I don't know,” I admit. “...I suppose it depends on what we would consider okay...”

“...I'm not sure...”

“If she rejoins with Vaanu and disappears again in the morning, does that make her okay?”

“...I don't know. ...But I know it would make Jake...not okay...”

That gives me pause. “...He has not been doing well. I know Diego said as much, but actually seeing it...”

“What will happen to him if she does disappear again?”

“...We'll take care of him. All of us. For her sake, we'll take better care of him than we have been.” I kiss her cheek. “...Do you want to look in on her?”

“We probably shouldn't leave Reggie alone...”

“He's asleep. And we can turn on the baby monitor.” I reach over to flip the switch on the monitor clipped to the edge of the crib. The light turns green. I pick up the other and gently lead Grace away from our room towards Jake's.

The lights in his room are dimmed, but not off. Jake and Diego lie still on the double bed, Alodia sandwiched between them with her face pressed into Jake's chest. The two men have their arms draped over her and each other. Sean sits on the floor, leaning against the wall. Michelle is curled up with her head on his lap, a throw blanket draped over her shoulders. He rolls his head towards us as we enter, bringing a hand up to rub his eyes.

“Hey...” he mumbles.

“...She's still here?” Grace asks.

“Yeah. She's still here. And she's sleeping, sort of...” Before I can clarify his meaning, Alodia twitches on the bed, whimpering. Jake and Diego both startle awake and immediately set to quieting her, whispering comfortingly and stroking her hair. It puts me in mind of the first time Reggie got sick, when Grace and I kept vigil through the night with our son on the bed between us. After a moment, she stills. Diego glances up at us, nodding briefly in acknowlegment of our presence. Jake doesn't take his eyes off his wife.

Sean sighs. “...I think the pain has eased a little, anyway. Michelle thinks she's still in distress, though. But her vitals are strong.”

“She is still in distress,” Diego mutters. “That's clear from here. ...Goddammit, I wish I knew what was happening. I just feel so helpless...”

“Perhaps a few of us should travel ahead to Elyys'tel in the morning,” I suggest. “Let the Vaanti know what's happening. At least Varyyn ought to know. If she's still struggling a few days from now, it will be difficult to travel...”

“...I don't want him to worry,” Diego concedes.

“Yeah,” Jake sighs. “...Can't have that.”

“...Sean?” Grace asks. “What are you thinking?” I look over at Sean, whose brow is wrinkled with concentration. He appears to be studying intently the socked foot stretched in front of him.

“...Diego...you were saying you have memories of her before the island? ...That they just recently started coming to you?”

“Yeah. After the Prism Gate thing. ...Why?”

“...Because one just came to me. ...Sophomore year at Hartfeld. Second game of the year. The dance team was selling hot dogs and bratwurst at the game. I saw her while I was warming up. She was showing off some gymnastics moves. Using the bleacher as a balance beam.”

“...She was in our European History class...” Grace murmurs. “The one we had together, Sean. With Professor Franco. She got into that argument with him over whether Lady Jane Grey should really be considered an English Queen.”

As they are speaking, a memory drifts to the surface of my mind. A blonde-haired young woman in the campus coffee shop, sipping from a paper cup with a cardboard sleeve while pouring over a history textbook...entering the library a few yards ahead of me and pausing to hold the door open...chatting with Diego on the tarmac outside Jake's plane as we prepared to board in Costa Rica...

“...She was there in Costa Rica,” I murmur. “When we boarded the plane for La Huerta.”

Jake's breath shudders. “Oh, God...Goddamn...I saw her boarding pass...I checked her passport...” Alodia suddenly goes rigid, crying out. Jake sits up sharply, taking her hand. “I'm here, Princess. Just hang on. Everything's gonna be okay.”

Michelle sits up blearily, pushing the blanket off her shoulders and fumbling for her med kit. I'm not sure if she realizes that Grace and I are here before she's stumbled over to the bed and begun examining her patient. Sean sighs.

“She's been doing that all night.” He shakes his head bemusedly. “She doesn't even flinch. She accuses me of pushing myself too hard on the field, but an intern's hours make my job look cushy, even factoring in the risk of head injury.”

“...It's been a long night already,” I murmur. “And I think it's only going to get longer.”

 

Jake

 

In spite of Aleister's prediction, Alodia seems to finally fall into a restful sleep not long after three in the morning. Diego drops off not long after, still spooning his best friend from behind while I cradle her head against my chest. I don't get much sleep myself. I'm too scared that she'll disappear the moment I close my eyes. That this is all some cruel dream. I have dreams like this sometimes. The first year or two after La Huerta, I had them a couple times a week. I'd be walking on a beach on the island and she would appear in front of me, tell me how much she loved me, how much she missed me. We would make love and lie together in the afterglow, and she would slowly slip away as my traitor brain forced me to wake up and face reality.

...The others were never with us in those dreams. And she was never suffering, never in pain like she has been all night. But that's not much of a comfort, even if it does seem like evidence that she's real. About the time the sky starts to turn gray with the early light of dawn, exhaustion wins out, and I drop off.

The next thing I am aware of is a hand gently stroking my hair. Followed quickly by the fact that my arms are empty. I gasp sharply, my eyes flying to the face above me. Alodia, seated on the edge of the bed beside me, gazes down at me as she runs her fingers through my hair. She puts the index finger of her free hand to her lips and bends to brush my mouth with hers. She nods at my left. I turn my head to see Diego, huddled on the other side of the bed. She gestures with her head to the balcony, taking my hand and standing. I rise slowly, letting her draw me over.

We've barely made it out to the balcony and shut the sliding door behind us before need overtakes me and I pull her into my arms, kissing her hungrily. She winds her arms around my neck, kissing back. She tastes just how I remember her, fits in my arms so perfectly. The sparks that fly between us, the way the earth shifts under our feet, the fiery heat of our bodies together is intensely familiar. We're both breathless when we break apart, pressing our foreheads together.

“...Five years, and you still kiss me like it's our wedding day.”

“There's five years' worth of missing you in that kiss, Princess.”

“...I haven't been replaced, then?”

“No one could replace you. Ever. I won't claim I've been celibate, or that I haven't loved anyone I've taken to bed. But none of them could hold a candle to you. No one made me think I could stop running like you did. And ain't a one of them loved me back as much as you did.”

“...I almost can't believe you still love me after everything...”

“What do you mean by everything?”

“...Everything I did...”

“You mean saving the fucking world?”

“...I left you.”

“Because you were saving the fucking world.”

She smiles weakly, but it doesn't last. “...No one has really smiled since I turned up here.”

“Yeah, well, we were all kinda shocked at first. And scared you were gonna vanish. Then you started screaming in pain and that didn't exactly put anyone in the mood to tell knock-knock jokes...”

“Did I scare you?”

“Did it scare me to see the woman I haven't stopped loving in five years screaming and crying in pain for hours when I couldn't do anything but try to help her ride it out?”

“...Ask a stupid question, I guess.”

I feel the first ghost of a smile on my lips. I reach up to cup the side of her face in one hand. “At least you seem better this morning.” I sigh. “...I admit, I ain't had the easiest time of it since I lost you. We'd just got married. We were supposed to have our whole lives together. And then just like that...nothing.”

“...There was just no way to have it all, Jake. Letting Project Janus go ahead would have remade the world in Rourke's image. I could have stayed here with you and the others forever, but that would have meant letting the world burn. ...The eleven of you mean everything to me. ...And the price for giving you all everything you deserved was losing myself.”

“...But...now you're here...” I let the question hang unspoken in the air. She is quiet for a very long time. I don't let go of her for a moment. When she speaks again, her voice is low and husky with emotion.

“...I made the choice that I thought was right because all of you deserved everything. I put on a brave face because I didn't want any of you thinking I was doing something I didn't want to do out of fear or panic. ...But don't think for a second that I wasn't fucking furious. It was right, but it wasn't goddamn fair. ...I wanted to exist. I wanted to stay with all of you. I wanted the life that had been imagined for me, and I wanted to have it all without giving up the world. ...I wanted our little cottage by the sea, maybe a few of your kids if you were game. I wanted to look in the mirror one day and see the Endless staring back at me with a wrinkled and balding Jake McKenzie beside me.”

“I'd wince at the image, but it's what I wanted, too. These last five years, I've pictured us slowly growing old together. I wanted to hug you to my beer gut and tell you that you were beautiful while you fretted over every wrinkle and every gray hair. Every liver spot...” I grin a little and tap her chin. “Every hair sprouting where you didn't want it to...”

She laughs. “Never has chin hair sounded so romantic.”

“There'd be hot flashes, digestive distress, hemorroids, flatulence...”

“Don't push it, Top Gun.”

I chuckle, but it quickly dies in my throat. “...I don't think you realize how badly I wanted it. I'd take all the gas and backaches just to have you beside me again.”

“...I gave my energy back to Vaanu so that it could finally leave Earth. ...But after all that time, living as myself, living as the Endless, loving all of you, being loved back by all of you, needing you and being needed by you...I was too much of my own person to fully merge with Vaanu. Trying to take me back with it was like...trying to but a baby back in the womb once they've been born. We broke apart not long after leaving. That is...Vaanu released the part of our consciousness that had become Alodia. I...didn't have a body per se...but my consciousness was always reaching back to the earth. To all of you. ...I couldn't fully get back right away, though. Then...suddenly...I felt energy. The same kind of energy that had willed me into being in the first place. The next thing I knew, I was falling...and then I was here. On La Huerta, and all of you were gathered around a bonfire. And...now I have memories of an entire childhood spent in Riverside, growing up beside Diego, doing gymnastics and dance, majoring in history at Hartfeld...getting trapped on La Huerta...That's why I was in that state last night. ...All those memories rushing back was kind of overwhelming, and...it hurt. A lot.”

“Thank god it's over. But...Alodia...” I take her face in my hands. “...Does this mean you're back? For good?”

She bites her lip. “I...think so...? I mean, I know Aleister was talking about the Prism Gate thing, and if it really is powered by one La Huerta's crystals, then it seems like a pretty safe bet that's what brought me back. If what I remember from being merged with Vaanu is correct, that crystal will still have a great deal of power, enough to do some damage if it's used incorrectly. But nothing on the level of the Island's Heart or Vaanu itself. ...And I don't think that any amount of damage it could to would be undone if I merged with it. I'm not even sure that I could.” She smiles at me. There's something a little anxious in her smile, but it doesn't seem forced. “...As far as I can tell, Top Gun, you're stuck with me.”

Tears seem appropriate right now. I can feel them in my chest and my throat as I grab hold of her and pull her close. But instead, I find myself laughing. I clutch her in my arms and rock her joyfully, laughing like a madman.

“Princess, you crazy fucking miracle. Goddamn, I shoulda known you'd fight your way back if you had half a chance.”

“I love you, Jake. I love you so much.” We pull back and our lips meet in a wild frenzy, everything we've stored up over five years of separation, grief, anger, heartache, and longing turning to desire. She bites at my earlobe, her voice husky as she whispers, “I want you...”

I reluctantly pull back, just enough to press my forehead to hers. “I want you, too. ...But why don't we get the others up to speed? Way you were last night, there's no way anyone's gonna give us any privacy before they know you're okay.”

She laughs. “Right now, they could watch for all I care. ...But you're right. And I do want to see them again now that my head's on straight. I've got five years to catch up on.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Sean

 

I don't sleep very deeply, slumped against the wall with Michelle in my lap. But it still takes me a minute to come awake when the shouting starts. Then someone starts shaking me wildly, which doesn't really help.

“Sean!” Michelle cries. “Sean, wake up!”

I try to ask her what's wrong, but my tongue is heavy and it comes out in a mushy mumble that I'm not sure sounds like anything.

“Sean, Allie's back!” Diego cries. “She's okay! Get it together, will you?!”

I finally shake off the last cobwebs of sleep, scrambling to my feet. Alodia stands tucked under Jake's arm. She looks exhausted, but she's smiling, and Jake is grinning like an idiot which is encouraging.

“You...you're really okay?”

“As far as I can tell, yeah.” She untangles herself from Jake and holds her arms out for a hug. I eagerly comply.

“It's so good to see you again. ...What the hell happened? Do you know?”

“I think so. ...But maybe it can wait until we're all together? I don't want to have to retell the whole story five times.”

I laugh. “On it. I'll go wake everyone up.”

Naturally, as they come awake, everyone's first impulse is to tackle Alodia with a flurry of hugs and questions. She finally manages to settle us all down long enough to explain. About how her consciousness separated from Vaanu's and reached back towards Earth, and how some energy that was presumably the Prism Gate activating had pulled her back and allowed her to manifest on the beach. ...How she had memories now of an entire lifetime spent on Earth. And the fact that she did not think the presence of a surviving crystal from the island would prevent her from continuing that new life where it had left off.

“...So...it's not like Vaanu's been broken all over again?” Raj asks.

“No more than Grace is broken for having had Reggie,” Alodia replies. “It's like I told Jake. I had become too much of my own person for Vaanu to fully take me back. I had my own thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams, and trying to take me back ultimately proved to be like pushing a baby back into the womb after they've been born.”

“...Ew...” Craig mutters. I see Grace shudder slightly.

“Yeah, I'm with Craig,” Zahra agrees. “Also, I don't understand why you aren't still a massive paradox...even if you were my roommate freshman year.”

“Wait, what? She was?”

Zahra shrugs. “On paper, anyway. And only for the first semester. She crashed in Diego's suite most nights. ...Funny, at the time, I figured they were hooking up.”

“You wouldn't have been the first person to think so,” Diego says ruefully. “Allie was a pretty convincing beard when she consented to be one.”

“Hey, I chose Hartfeld because it was where you wanted to go,” Alodia protests. “It sucks that we somehow ended up in completely different suites our first year! I'm just glad that one kid moved into the frat house second semester. Meant I got his room.”

The three of them chuckle, until the strangeness of what they're actually saying hits them. “Yo, that's super weird,” Zahra mutters. “How long is that going to keep happening?”

“I...don't really know. In a way, this is sort of what Rourke was trying to do with Project Janus. ...Except that in this case, La Huerta is still here, and Rourke isn't emperor of the world, and the Vaanti are here and not imprisoned in underground camps...”

What?!” Diego yelps. Alodia grimaces.

“Sorry. ...Weird Vaanu side-effect, I think. I have a...not quite memory of what would have happened if I let Project Janus go ahead. It...wasn't nice.”

“But that's not what has happened, here?” Aleister asks anxiously.

“No. I...think I still have a little bit of Vaanu's soul inside me, but no more than any child inherits from their parents. I don't have nearly as much power as Vaanu, or even as the Endless had while Vaanu was still on Earth. But...basically, I've been...retconned into the world's past like living CGI. ...I admit that I am an anomaly. But I don't have the power to unmake existence or create volcanos or anything like what Vaanu's arrival on Earth did. Thanks to all of you, I'm too human to manage it.”

“...But...if there is another crystal out there...” Quinn says softly.

“We can deal with one crystal,” Estela answers firmly. “We'll figure out what needs to be done with it when we get back.”

“...The biggest thing I think I need to apologize for is the fact that I think this isn't going to be easy on any of you. It was all of your needs meeting with Vaanu that willed me into being. I don't think you can forget what I was now that you know. You'll remember me from before La Huerta now, but I think you'll also never forget that there was a timeline where I didn't exist until we entered the time bubble.”

“Who cares?” Diego scoffs. Alodia reaches out to cover his hand with hers.

“It will be harder on you than anyone else. You'll have about twenty years worth of new memories alongside the old ones. Everyone else will only have met me when I got to Hartfeld.”

Diego shakes his head. “It's worth it to get my best friend back. Nothing matters as much as that.”

“But...” Grace hesitates. “Are you really sure that this won't cause a butterfly effect or anything?”

Alodia's gaze softens, growing distant. “...I'm not the first anomaly to ever exist. La Huerta itself was born from a violent event, and Vaanu's own trauma and pain, which is why it had so much impact. But most of us manage to slip into the world and move around unnoticed. ...Time knows what its doing. I exist like a rock in a stream. The water bends and reforms around me and mostly remains undisturbed.” She blinks and looks up to meet our eyes again, smiling sheepishly. “...Was that weird? Sorry...it's gonna take me a little time to settle back into myself.”

“You take all the time you need, Princess.” Jake kisses the side of her head. “There's no need to rush.”

For a moment, everyone is quiet. Tension crackles like electricity in the air. Then, it slowly starts to bleed away as everything she's told us sinks in. She's back. Our Alodia is back with us for good. Giddy elation floods in behind the tension. Craig bounces behind Alodia, grasping her firmly by the shoulders.

“Well, you feel solid enough, so I don't think you're a hologram.”

“She might be a robot, though,” Zahra adds. “Jake, have you checked her for wires yet?”

“Oookay, I don't want to know any more about their sex life than absolutely necessary,” Diego groans.

“Relax,” Michelle sniffs. “She has a pulse. I checked. ...Though, if you want, I could give you a quick physical just to make sure everything checks out.”

Alodia frowns thoughtfully. “You know...actually, I think I would like that. Just to put my mind at ease. Though...I feel human enough to be hungry. And...I actually have to pee really bad right now.”

“We should probably let you do that,” Diego chuckles.

“Yeah. I'll get started on breakfast,” Raj declares, hopping to his feet and practically skipping out the door.

“Let me give you a hand,” Quinn calls, following him out.

“Well, I guess if you're feeling all right, we won't be late to meet the Vaanti,” I remark. Alodia, already on her way to the bathroom, pauses, looking back eagerly.

“The Vaanti?”

“Yeah. It's kinda become tradition to spend three days here, and then four with the Vaanti before we go back home.”

She smiles. “I would love to see them again...”

“Well, we were hardly thinking of leaving you behind!” I laugh. “Go on now, attend to your bodily needs.”

“If you come to my room afterward,” Michelle adds, “I can give you a quick exam before breakfast.”

“All right. But...I may need you to show me which room is yours.”

“...Right. Noted. Okay, I'll wait out here.”

 

Michelle

 

I gather my medkit while Alodia finishes in the bathroom, and lead her to my room. I give her a robe to change into, and direct her into the bathroom. When she emerges with the robe over her shoulders, I gesture to the bed. She takes a seat.

“So are you officially a real, licensed doctor now?”

“I have a medical degree, but I'm still an intern. But I'll be a resident soon enough.” I pull on a pair of gloves and pick up my penlight. “Look straight ahead for me.”

“I have no doubt.” She obediently looks ahead while I check her pupils. They shrink normally under the light, and I pick up a tongue depressor to check her mouth and throat. I tip her head back and make a quick examination of her nostrils. She endures all this calmly, but when I put the otoscope in her ear, she fliches, recoiling slightly. I pull back.

“Does that hurt?”

“Not really.” She smiles sheepishly. “...Sorry...I just hate the feeling of having things in my ears. Especially pokey things. I know it's dumb.”

“Not at all. It's just instinct, not wanting pokey things near something as sensitive as your eardrums. Do you know how long it took me to train myself not to flinch while putting in contacts or applying eyeliner? Just take a deep breath. I promise I'll be quick.” I bend again to look in her ears. I feel her stiffen, but she holds still. I move around to the other side. “Besides, I've been an intern for nearly a year. Someone who flinches at an otoscope is a picnic compared to some patients I've had to deal with. Getting puked on because I use a tongue depressor on someone with a strong gag reflex is shockingly common.”

She chuckles as I put down the otoscope and palpate her cervical lymph nodes. “Do they warn you about that kind of thing as a premed?”

“Yeah, but it's still kind of a shock the first time.” I check her pulse and blood pressure, listen to her heart and lungs, test her reflexes. “Do you trust me enough to let me do a quick breast check and manual pelvic?”

She laughs. “Do you really have to ask after everything?”

“I'll have to put my fingers in your vagina to palpate your cervix, and it's probably going to be a little uncomfortable. Are you okay with that?”

“Michelle Nguyen, I trust you with my life. I can handle a little probing.”

I smile, taking her hand and giving it a squeeze. “Lie down then, and open your robe for me.”

She does as I tell her, and I palpate her breasts and her abdomen. Changing my gloves, I finish at her pelvis. When I carefully insert my fingers, she pulls in a sharp breath, her mouth twisting a little, but she doesn't flinch. I finish as quickly as I can and withdraw, pulling off my gloves.

“Everything looks and feels normal. You don't have a hymen, which I find noteworthy with your whole situation considered, but at your age, no other doctor is going to blink at that. In this timeline, I expect it went the way of most hymens.”

She chuckles at my choice of words. “I'm afraid I couldn't tell you if my other body had one. Never paid a whole lot of attention down there unless I was actually using it...”

“A mystery for the ages,” I tease. “In all seriousness, it's only a curiosity to me because you're a time anomaly and everything about you is a curiosity. You can go ahead and get dressed, by the way.”

She slips behind the bathroom door to put her clothes back on. “...Do you happen to have any clothes I could borrow? What I've got on is fine for now, but if we're here for a whole week, I might want something to change into. ...I'm a little surprised I didn't turn up naked, honestly.”

“Oh, I'm sure we girls can all spare one outfit. You'll be set for the week.”

She reemerges, fully clothed. “So, can I pass for human, do you think?”

“If you're not human, it's a remarkable disguise from what I can see. Nothing out of place that I could find. Though...I think when we get back home, I'm going to find a way to get you into the hospital for a lab workup. Blood and urine samples and all that. At the very least, you should have a titer test.”

“A what test?”

“Titer. Check for the presence of antibodies. ...I have no idea how being a time anomaly is going to affect your immune system, whether this version of you has had childhood vaccines, when her last tentanus shot was...”

She laughs. “You would be the one to think of that,” she teases, but I can hear affection behind it. I grin.

“Well, you know, that's my job. And the last thing I want is for us to get you back only to have you die of measles or something.”

“...I can remember getting shots as a kid. And hating them, of course.”

“Of course.” I reach out to clasp her shoulder. “I hope you'll forgive me, but I think I'm going to be a little alarmist with your health for awhile. ...I think it's going to take everyone some time to stop being scared we're going to lose you again, and your physical health is the one thing I can take care of better than anyone else.”

“Of course, Michelle. ...Honestly, I think I may need some coddling for awhile. This whole thing has been pretty disorienting. I'm going to need to cling to the people who love me best.”

“Well, you remember you said that when I insist on dragging you to the hospital every time you so much as cough. Ask Quinn how annoying I can be about that sort of thing if you don't believe me.”

She looks at me sharply. “Quinn? Is she...?”

“She's fine. Still no traces left of the Rotterdam's. But until I was sure it wasn't coming back, I made myself a huge nuisance.”

“How did she explain her mysterious recovery to her parents?”

“...I don't think she'd ever told them it had come back in the first place. They still think that experimental treatment her dad put her on is what did it.”

She doesn't immediately reply, and a knock at the door distracts us. “Hello?” Jake calls. “Everyone decent in there?”

“We're both decent,” Alodia calls back. “We're also wearing clothes.”

Jake pokes his head in. “Got a clean bill of health for her, doc?”

“She says everything's fine from what she can see,” Alodia replies. “But she does want me to provide a few meals for the vampires at the hospital when we get home.”

“Just routine stuff,” I assure him.

“She wants to make sure I've had all my shots.”

Jake frowns thoughtfully. “There's probably a record of that somewhere, right? I mean if she existed in the real world now...”

“That's true. She probably has a birth certificate and everything.”

“I know she has a passport. I remember checking it in Costa Rica. We can worry about all that later, though. Breakfast is ready and Raj insists that we eat it while it's hot.”

“You won't get any argument from me,” Alodia declares eagerly. “Let's eat!”

 

Alodia

 

Gathered around the breakfast table with my friends, sopping up creamy egg yolk with a soft cornbread muffin and listening to their stories of the last five years, I can't help but wonder if it is possible that I will ever be as happy as I am in this moment. This is the sort of moment the Endless fought to give me, blissful moments surrounded by the people who had willed me into being, who love me more than anyone in the world. But the cost of such moments would have been too high to bear. Though her hair was gray and her skin had gone slack with age, the Endless was a younger incarnation of my soul, selfish like a child is selfish, and rebellious. She had fought against Vaanu's desire to take her back. By the time I met Vaanu myself, I was ready to do what had to be done. To sacrifice my own happiness for the sake of the people who meant more to me than anything. They were and are worth the world. But they also deserve the world.

But, I suppose some things never change, because fighting Vaanu is the whole reason I am back here now.

And now, I do have it all. The world is safe, and the island is safe, and my friends are safe, and they know each other and I know all of them. I have a past to go home to, a life waiting for me with my dear friends and my husband at my side. There is a whole world of possibility stretched out before me, and I mean to explore it all. Though for now, I am content to bask in the love of my true family and the triumphs my sacrifice brought them.

Grace and Aleister, now married with their beautiful son. Quinn, healthy and thriving and running her charity. Sean a starting quarterback for the Condors, with his beautiful fiance well on her way to becoming the doctor she was always meant to be. Craig designs video games, Zahra has a band as well as a job as Rourke International's chief of security. Estela is living with her Tio in San Trobida, and Raj is a world-renowned chef with his own television show. My precious Diego is a professor and best-selling author, and my beloved Jake is free while the man who caused him so much suffering is a prisoner.

I let them guide me through the day, taking me on a tour of the manorhouse, playing in the pool and on the beach like we did those first days on the island. Except now we also take turns watching Reggie in the shallow end, and build sandcastles for him on the beach.

As night falls, Raj grills burgers for us and fixes drinks while Quinn supplies cupcakes. After Grace and Aleister settle the baby, we bring lounge chairs down to the beach and gather around a fire to watch the stars come out. Then, one by one, the others start to drift back inside to sleep. Soon, it's just me, Jake, and Diego left.

“I think I'm gonna make sure our room is ready for us,” Jake eventually declares, leaning over to kiss me. “Don't stay up too late, Princess.”

“I'll be in soon.”

“Promise?”

“I swear it by Andromeda.” He gives me another kiss, his hand lingering on mine as he drifts back to the manorhouse. For a moment, the only sounds are the crackle of the dying fire, the whisper of the waves, and the faint hum of life in the rainforest behind us. I study the stars above me. “...The sky's back to normal, isn't it? It's not the Hadean sky anymore.”

“Nope,” Diego confirms. “It's back to the modern era.”

“...Good...” I lean back in my chair, letting the plastic cradle my head. I laugh a little. “...I'm so goddamned happy right now, I can't even believe it. I had hoped that everyone would be okay, but I think it's all turned out better than I ever imagined...”

I feel Diego's hand on mine. “We're doing pretty well, and it's all thanks to you. But don't forget that for the last five years, we've been coming back to La Huerta to honor your memory.” His fingers tighten on my hand. “...I've really missed you, Allie...”

“I've missed you too, Diego. It was harder for me to leave you than anyone else.”

“...Don't tell Jake that.”

“If you think he didn't know that from the first moment he understood what I was, you don't know him very well. You were the first spark to meet Vaanu's energy and bring me to life. The others help shape me, but you were the spark of my creation. You're the missing piece of my heart. You're my best friend and you always will be. ...It broke me to pieces to learn that all those years we thought we were together were illusions. ...All those times you needed me, I wasn't really there for you...” I feel myself choking on a sudden wave of heartache.

“...But now you were,” he says softly. “Now those memories are real.”

I grip his hand, letting memories of our childhood together rush to the surface. “...Remember when we were four, how upset we got when we realized we wouldn't be starting school together?”

“We threatened to run away to Idaho, as I recall.”

“Yeah. ...Why Idaho?”

“I think it was just the first place name that came to mind that sounded sufficiently far away. ...Remember how you used to be scared of the Seasame Street aliens?”

“They were so damned creepy! They made me long for your abuelita's telenovelas!”

He laughs. “Abuelita had no idea what was appropriate to put in front of children, did she?”

“Not at all. But thankfully, we were too little to understand most of it.”

“Still, I remember we used a lot of plotlines in our games. Like remember the time My Little Pony captured GI Joe to build an evil weather machine?”

“Why did she need GI Joe again?”

“Well, obviously because she didn't have any thumbs. Just hooves.” He makes his hands into fists and bumps them together, mimicking hooves. “Very hard to hold a screwdriver.”

I take another sip of my cocktail. “...Speaking of screwdrivers...remember that summer when we were fifteen and we got into my uncle's liquor cabinet?”

“And got totally sloshed on Kahlua? Of course. That was the night I came out to you, wasn't it.”

“Yeah. I remember belting 'If You Were Gay,' at the top of my lungs, and you whacking me with a pillow and telling me I couldn't sing.”

“Well, you couldn't,” he snickers. “Bet you still can't. God, I remember the hangover lasted two days. How the hell did we not get caught?”

“I got caught,” I reply before I even realize what I've said. He looks sharply at me.

“What?”

“...My aunt and uncle were out of town that week. You didn't get caught because we just told your parents you were staying with me, and by the time you went home, the hangover had worn off enough to hide it. ...But a few days after they got home, Uncle Rob realized the Kahlua was gone...” My stomach is clenching with remembered fear. I clutch Diego's hand. He squeezes back, sucking in a sharp breath.

“Oh, god...that was the night he...”

“...The only time in my life he ever hit me. We never got along great, especially when I got to be a teenager, but he never raised a hand to me before that night, and he never did again...”

“You never told me that it was about the missing Kahlua. You said it was about swiping some cash from his wallet.”

“I didn't want you to feel guilty about having gotten away with it when I didn't.” I close my eyes. The pure bliss of the last few hours is fighting to stay afloat amidst the sudden flood of unhappy memories. “...I guess I'm going to have to deal with bad memories along with the good...”

“...Yeah...like that time when we got mugged in LA.”

I shiver. “...I walked away with only a few bruises. They almost killed you. They almost didn't let me see you in the hospital until your mom gave me permission...”

“Do you remember that we met Jake's sister that day?”

“What? We di...” I cut myself off with a gasp as the face of the officer who responded to my frantic, tearful pleas to help my friend forms in my mind. Auburn hair, the calm voice speaking in a Southern drawl, asking what his name was. Without flinching at the blood trickling from his mouth, or the way he was whimpering, she knelt at his side, putting a hand on his shoulder. Diego, I'm officer Rebecca McKenzie, and you're gonna be just fine...

A long silence hangs in the air between us. Not awkward, but heavy in its way. Diego is the one to break it.

“...It's been really hard on him, Allie. Losing you.”

“I knew it would be. I didn't want to leave him.”

“I know. I know. I'm not trying to make you feel guilty or anything. ...I just...think you ought to know. He hasn't coped very well. It's not your fault, and it's not his. But he hasn't really felt like he's had anywhere to turn. I was lucky. I had Varyyn. But Jake...”

“What about Mike?”

He sighs. “Mike has had his own trauma to cope with. I think he and Jake have just been kind of...out of sync since Lundgren's trial ended. It's hard for them to lean on each other when they're both trying to run in different directions. Besides, without you there to ground him, Jake's just been...kind of aimless since the trial. He doesn't want to go back to the Navy after everything. He still has his pilot's license, but I don't think flying means what it used to mean to him.” He tips the last dregs of his cocktail down his throat and sets his glass on the sand beside him. “I dunno. Maybe a few more years down the line, he would have snapped out of it, or gotten past you... Losing you hit him hard. That's all I'm saying. It hit all of us hard, but he made you the center of his world. Same way I did at the start, when you first came into being. If I'd lost you at that point in my life, before I had Varyyn or any other friends for that matter, I would have been just as aimless.”

I nod slowly. “...Thank you for telling me.” I glance back at the manorhouse and I immediately spot him on the balcony outside his room, silhouetted by the light from inside the room. He's watching me. Making sure I don't disappear again. “...I should go to him.”

“I think that would be wise. And I should come in and get some sleep. It's starting to hit me how little I slept last night.”

I grin as I get to my feet. “Need a hand up?”

“I will not say no.” I pull him to his feet, and we wrap our arms around each others' shoulders as we make our way back to the manorhouse. When we reach his room, we part. But not before he pulls me into a tight hug. “I love you, Allie. You'll always be my best friend.”

“I love you back, Diego. Forever.”

As I step into Jake's room, the fragant scent of jungle flowers wafts over me. I look down and see the carpet strewn with petals. Jake sits on the edge of the bed, bathed in the flickering light of a dozen candles. I smile at him.

“Mmm, romantic. But I am rather surprised that you're still fully clothed.”

“So are you,” he replies. “I wanted to be prepared, not presumptuous.”

“That's very considerate of you.” I let my hips sway as I approach him. “Let me be absolutely unambiguous.”

I straddle his lap, putting my hands on his shoulders, and bend to capture his mouth with mine. He kisses back, lifting my shirt and letting his hands roam underneath. Every place his fingers touch tingles with electric heat. I bury my fingers in his hair, kissing harder, nipping lightly at his tongue and lower lip. I rock my hips against his, teasing. We start to move faster. I lift my arms, breaking apart long enough to let him slip my shirt off. I grab the back of his, dragging it off over his head. We fumble to undo each others' pants.

“I want you,” I whisper huskily, bending to nibble at his earlobe. He cups my breast, making circles over the nipple with his thumb.

“I need you,” he whispers back.

I put my hand to his chest, pushing him down onto the bed. “I'm here.”

One arm wraps around my back, the other hand cups my bottom. His fingertips dig into my flesh. “I love you so much.”

I plant kisses on his chest and shoulders, biting at his collarbone. “I love you, Jake.”

In one swift motion, he flips me over, pinning me under the weight of his body and pressing his hips into mine. His pale blue eyes lock with mine, shimmering slightly in the candlelight. One hand comes up to cup my cheek, stroking it tenderly. “...Don't leave me, Alodia.”

His plea sounds so vulnerable, so fragile, that it briefly cools the heat flooding through me. I reach up to brush strands of shaggy brown hair from his face, tucking them behind his ears.

“Never. Never again.”

“Do you promise?”

“Do you remember what I said when you proposed?”

“...'To the stars and back'.”

“I've been to the stars. Now I'm back. I'm not leaving you until death drags me kicking and screaming from your side.”

There is still fear in his eyes, and I can't honestly blame him for it, but the smile playing around his mouth is genuine.

“You know you're really sexy when you talk fierce like that.”

“One of the many reasons why I do.” I grin, drawing his hand down from my face to cover my breast again. “Now come on, Top Gun. Show me what you've wanted to do to me for the last five years.”

His fingertips trail down my torso, tracing the bony ridge of my pelvis toward my pubis. His thumb finds a sensitive spot and presses in just enough to make me gasp. He bends to nibble at my ear.

“I ain't planning on letting you keep quiet.”

“I don't plan on trying to keep quiet,” I reply. I can feel my blood rising again, boiling under my skin. “Don't be gentle with me, Top Gun. I've waited five years to feel like a human again, and I want to feel.

“Princess, your wish is my command.”

I feel him sink into me, and I give into it, letting the motion of his body and the waves of pleasure rolling through my blood carry me. The lightning storm in Cetus' belly has got nothing on what's raging in my body and soul as I move with Jake, rediscovering sensations I have longed for since I touched the crystal pillar on the rooftop of The Celestial. Little bursts of pain wrapped in pleasure so powerful it almost hurts to bear it, an act sacred and holy and profound between two souls who make each other whole, messy and just a little rough between two humans driven by animal desire. When we're both spent, we lie in the afterglow with our hearts racing, heady with the high, peaceful and content, gasping for breath through burning throats, muscles aching and quivering, skin slick and stinking with sweat and fluid. We brush damp strings of hopelessly tangled hair off each other's foreheads and pant against each other's mouths, our lips groping wearily for their targets.

“...Sex is weird...” I mumble, barely realizing what I'm saying until I've said it. Jake snorts.

“Weird? That's your first thought after we make love for the first time in five years?”

“Give me a break, Top Gun. I haven't even had a body in all that time. I don't even know that it's actually been five years for me. To have a human body again after basically being stardust is...weird.”

“Okay, fair enough,” he laughs. He props himself up on his elbow to look down at me. His free hand cups my cheek, stroking it with his thumb. “Was it anything like you remembered?”

“Oh, better. It's just crazy how anything can feel that intense and not only not kill a person, but actually sometimes create a person. It's messy and it's really kinda violent, but it drives people so thoroughly. And even when you're so in love with the person you're having sex with that you would die for them, it doesn't actually make sex...pretty... There's still fluid and smells and weird noises and even weirder faces...”

“Well, this is certainly the weirdest pillowtalk I've ever engaged in,” he quips. He kissing me, smiling. “Tell me more about how sex is weird.”

I chuckle. “You know, in the broadest sense of the word, I was a virgin when we first made love, but I didn't actually know it. I had vague memories of falling in love with you a thousand times and making love to you a hundred thousand times, and I suppose I turned those times into false memories of other lovers, but it was always you. And if you had asked me to name the first person I'd ever had sex with, like really confronted me with the question, I'm not sure I could have given you a name.”

He frowns a little. “What about now? Think you could give a name now?”

“...If I could, would you want me to?”

“Only if you're comfortable telling me,” he replies, shrugging. “I'm a little curious if you can, but whether or not you can doesn't change anything. I'm not all that invested in whether or not I was your first or your only, so long as I'm the only one now. Besides, it's unlikely the name would mean anything to me.”

I smile. “You're the only one I want for the rest of my life, Jacob Lucas McKenzie. ...But my first was Erica Fishman. After the high school graduation dance.”

“Mmmm. Nope, don't know her. My first was Jennifer Lloyd.”

“Oh, really? She was my third!”

He laughs. “Nice try, Princess. She was a Louisiana girl who ain't ever left far as I know. In fact, she still lives in her old neighboorhood.”

“And I suppose it's impossible that she ever traveled to California or Massachusetts?”

“Just to tumble a beautiful valley girl? Guess I couldn't blame her.”

“I'm not a valley girl, Jake. I'm from Riverside, which is nowhere near the San Fernando Valley.”

“It's nearer the San Fernando Valley than Pearl Rive...” He trails off, frowning. “...What's wrong?”

Even though I've had ample time to catch my breath, I have suddenly found myself gasping, my heart hammering painfully against my ribs. I grit my teeth against an icy wave of fear that suddenly crashes over me.

“N-nothing...I just...” I find his hand and grip it. I find his worried gaze and hold it with mine. “I'm just a little panicky, I guess. ...The fact that I have a past now...and a future...I'm scared of it being snatched away...”

“Come here.” He lies down, drawing me into his arms and cradling me against his chest. His heartbeat thumps against my ear. “If you're not willing to leave, then I'm not letting anything take you, either. I got you, Alodia. You're safe with me. I love you.”

“I love you, Jake.”

In his arms, the dark thoughts at the edges of my mind retreat. I fall asleep holding him close as the candles flicker out one by one, smelling sweat and sex and jungle flowers.

 

Chapter Text

Zahra

 

8-bit music trills under cheap explosion sound effects as my thumbs dance over the controller. I scowl at the screen as my character hurls another fireball at the massive, swollen red monster in front of him. The creature flashes yellow and white and its health bar drains another notch.

“We got this, Player One!” Craig crows. “He's toast!”

“Shut up, loser! I'm concentrating!” My sweat-slick thumb slips on the button, and I take a hit. “Shit! Goddammit!”

“I gotcha, Z! I'll cover you!” Craig's sprite raises her shield in front of my character, but a targeted blow still knocks her down a peg. My sprite pops back onto his feet. “Fireball! Fireball!”

I'm nearly out of health. I grit my teeth and tap out a combo. One final fireball, one final strike. The screen flashes seizure-inducing yellow and white. The blob-monster is dead, and so is my sprite. Only Craig's sprite still stands as the triumphant chiptune fanfare plays.

“Fuck!” It comes out halfway between a snarl and a sigh. “Well, it was mutually assured destruction anyway.”

“Don't worry, I'll revive you as soon as I get to the checkpoint.”

I sigh again, tossing the controller aside. “I don't wanna play anymore.”

Craig pauses the game, frowning at me. “What's wrong, Z?”

I sink down, pulling a pillow over my face. “I don't know. I don't fucking know. It's all weird.”

“Because Alodia's back?”

“Duh.”

“Hey, I know it's weird, but...it's still a good thing, right?”

“...Maybe...if she's really back...” I grunt, letting my hands fall away so that the pillow balances on my face. “...I'm happy to see her, obviously. But I'd just gotten used to the idea that she was actually gone. ...Seeing her last night by the bonfire...it was like when all of you found me in the temple and then fastforward to The Celestial, when we thought there were only two choices, Rourke's way or the Endless'.”

Craig lifts the pillow slightly, peeking under it. “Look...I get that. But let's just concentrate on enjoying the time we have with her, okay? Even if it's temporary.”

“And if she disappears again, what's that gonna do to Jake? Are we gonna end up losing him, too?” I swallow hard. “...I don't care about a lot of people, Craig...but all of us...we...”

“We what...?”

“We're a family, okay? There, I said it! If we lose Alodia again, I've got a very bad feeling Jake goes with her! And not right away, but one of those slow, painful, terrible-to-watch death deaths where we watch him destroy himself! I'm not prepared to deal with that, Craig! I'm not!”

“Well, we're not gonna let that happen.”

I ignore his reassurances. “And what about the fucking crystal that probably started it all?! What's that mean, huh?!”

“Hey, hey! If it's a Vaanu crystal, no better people to handle it than the Catalysts, right?”

“The whole concept of the Catalysts is a stable time loop. Like Jake turning himself in to Arachnid. Alodia...the Endless...only ever existed because the eleven of us made it to the island. The eleven of us made it to the island because the Endless existed and Rourke brought us here to find her.”

“Trippy to think about, isn't it.”

I take the pillow off my face and whack him with it. “Pay attention, Player Two!”

“I am paying attention, Z. I hear ya. But you know that worrying isn't going to change anything. We'll deal with the crystal and everything else when we get home.”

I want to argue, but what could I argue? It's not like he's wrong. I can't change anything just by worrying. But if telling people not to worry ever actually made them stop, no one would ever worry.

“...I was just getting used to this life...”

“You think Alodia coming back is gonna cause security problems at R.I.?”

“I...what?” I frown. “Probably...maybe. ...It might complicate things...”

“Think she's gonna take your band away?”

“What? No! Of course not!”

He grins, waggling his eyebrows. “Think she's gonna fall in love with me?”

Against my will, I fill myself smiling. “Idiot.”

“Think I'm gonna fall in love with her?”

“Maybe she'll fall in love with me,” I retort.

“And then I'll fall in love with Jake?”

“And we'll all have one massive orgy.”

“Sounds like fun. I'm in.”

I sigh, rolling her eyes. “All right, scrublord, you've made your point. Now get your sexy ass over here and kiss me before I get pissed off.” He laughs, obediently laying himself over me and kissing my mouth. “Good boy. I got you well-trained.”

“What's your pleasure now, Player One? Keep going after blob-monsters? Sneak to the kitchen and raid for leftovers?”

“...I think you're overdressed for what I have in mind.”

“Oh, good. That's kinda what I was hoping for.”

“You better have been.”

 

Raj

 

I wake up early the next morning. We're bound for Elyys'tel this afternoon, and of course I'm in charge of packing food for the journey. And for making breakfast. I get some music going on my phone, slip some earbuds in, and hum to myself while I cook. I'm not sure how much time has passed before I turn around and see Alodia lingering in the doorway. I yelp, almost dropping the carton of juice I'm holding. She laughs.

“Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you.”

I chuckle, pulling out my earbuds. “Not your fault. I was kinda in my own world.”

“Am I interrupting?”

“Never. Come on in.” She does, going to the table to sit down. Her hair is damp, and she's wearing different clothes than she was yesterday. “New clothes?”

“Borrowed an outfit from Michelle.”

“...Jake isn't going to wake up and come down here in a panic, is he?”

“Don't worry, he knows where I am. I told him to get a little more sleep. ...We're leaving for Elyys'tel today, right?”

“Yeah, this afternoon.”

She stretches her arms over her head, sighing luxuriously. “Whatever you're making smells amazing.”

I grin. “You've had a pretty good appetite since you got back.”

Her smile is sheepish, almost embarrassed. “I'm not sure it's going to last once I'm not eating your cooking every meal. But it might. Just having the taste of food in my mouth again, the act of chewing and swallowing...it's like I'm experiencing everything for the first time.”

“Really?”

“When I was part of Vaanu, I was basically incorporeal. Anything I can experience with my own senses is amazing right now. Sleeping was basically a religious experience. And I won't even get started on sex.”

“So...it's like you're high.”

“On LSD and the best weed you've ever had, all blended with Elyys'tel tree sap.”

“That sounds...awesome!

“For now it is. ...But...I'm a little scared about what happens when we go back to the States.”

“Why's that?”

“Because even if I have memories now, everything I've ever really known is on this island...”

I consider for a moment. “...You could probably stay here if you want to. The Vaanti would be happy to have you. I know Jake will stay wherever you want to stay. And that is what the Endless wanted.”

I am not the Endless, though.” She sighs. “...I'm scared to face that world. But...I have a life waiting for me out there. ...Somewhere in California, I have an aunt and an uncle who haven't seen me in five years. I can't say I was ever very close to them...but I'm sure they loved me in their own way. And I have a feeling they want me back. And...honestly, I kinda want them back, too. Even if I never really had them in the first place.”

“What are they like?”

She sighs, closing her eyes. “Aunt Molly was my mother's only sister, and the only living relative I had after my parents died. She and Uncle Rob never wanted kids of their own, but they also didn't want to give me up to the state when I was all that was left of Aunt Molly's sister. That's why they hired Diego's mom to be my nanny.” She opens her eyes again. “They weren't...unkind, usually. They had plenty of money, and they spoiled me more than a little. But they were never...warm with me. Not really.”

I have to pause to put a hand on her shoulder. “And you're sure you want to go back? You saved the world, Alodia. That doesn't mean you have to live in it.”

“But I do want to. I'm just a little nervous, that's all. ...What is that you're making?”

“Masala dosa. Another of Grandma's best recipes.”

“She must be so proud of you.”

“Yeah...” I reply softly. “She was.”

Her face falls. “...Was?”

“She passed away last winter.”

“Oh...oh, god...Raj, I'm so sorry...”

I smile. “Hey, don't worry. You didn't know. Besides, she was ninety-four. Didn't suffer at all, either. No major loss of brain function or mobility. She had a little harder time getting around in the last years, and in the last few months, she got tired quicker and couldn't follow conversations as easy. But she was still with her family, and that was where she wanted to be. Lived to see her cooking lessons pay off, too. Went to bed one night, happy and content...just let go...” I turn away when I hear my voice break, feeling tears cloud my eyes. “...She lived a good life. If I live half as long and full as she did, I'll die happy, too...”

I hear Alodia moving behind me. Then she slips her arm through mine and rests her head against my shoulder.

“In the end, she had the best death anyone could ask for their loved ones. Doesn't make it any easier for those left behind, does it.”

“Nah. Never does. But it's like you said. It was the best death anyone could hope for anyone they love. None of us last forever. It's what you do with the time you have that matters.” I grin, reaching over to ruffle her hair. “Which kinda makes you the high queen of life.”

She laughs. “Me or the Endless?”

“Two sides of the same coin. A coin named Alodia.”

“Or Vaanu... The Endless' goal was to keep you all safe on this island. To protect you forever. But she had given up on the world outside. She was willing to let it burn to protect the only people she loved. To give you all paradise and to live with you in that paradise. ...But I couldn't do what she wanted. Because there's no point in paradise when the rest of the world is hell.” She looks up at me. “That's actually why I want to go Riverside. Why I want to find the family that's been created for me. I mean, all of you are still my true family. But I don't want to waste this second chance I've been given. Now that Vaanu is free and La Huerta is safe and all of you are thriving, I don't want to just hide away for whatever time I have left here.”

“Hey, whatever you want, you know we're behind you one-hundred percent. I still say you've earned the right to lounge on the beach for the rest of your natural life, though. Wanna try some masala dosa?”

“Do I ever!” Tickled by her enthusiasm, I carefully tear off a piece, dipping it in chutney and sambhar before holding it out for her. She takes it carefully, eating with obvious relish. “Oh...my god...perfection...”

I chuckle. “This full-time high of yours is going to be fun while it lasts.”

“For me or you?”

“Both.” I grin and turn back to the stove, checking on the rest of the breakfast feast.

“...Hey...do you think women who actually have aunts named Flo get annoyed by that euphemism?”

“...Uh...what?”

“You know. A woman named Flora or Florence or something, who goes by the nickname Flo. Say she has a brother or a sister who has a daughter. Every time she goes to visit her niece, her niece tells people that her Aunt Flo is going to be in town, and the first thing they assume is that she's on her period.”

I stare at her, blinking. “...Is this part of that full-time high?”

She shrugs. “Probably. ...I told Jake that sex was weird last night.”

I laugh. “Okay, this is definitely going to be fun.”

“Can I help you cook?”

“Absolutely. Here. I'll show you what to do.”

 

Estela

 

Excitement has been in the air since breakfast. Under the afternoon sun, for the fifth time in as many years, we cross the jungle towards Elyys'tel. But this time, Alodia is with us. She's as giddy as a child, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Even Reginald, who has been decidedly cranky for the past few months as he's cut his first few teeth, seems unable to avoid being swept up by her mood. Eventually though, hunger and the hot sun wear his patience thin, and he starts to howl again. We all stop to rest and feed ourselves while Grace settles down to nurse her son. Alodia watches with fascination, but when Grace glances up at her, she blushes and looks away.

“...Was I being creepy? Sorry.”

“Well, it isn't as if we're strangers,” Grace replies, smiling a little. “But you did seem a little...enthralled.”

“It's only because she's basically high right now,” Raj explains.

Alodia makes a face. “What Raj means is that I am still getting used to being inside a human body again. So I hope no one will freak out if I act a little bit strangely for awhile.”

Grace laughs. “Don't worry, I think I can relate a little. Having another living person growing inside me altered my senses in ways that I didn't think were possible. Actually, I bet you and Reggie would have a lot to talk about if he could talk.” When Reggie's had his fill, Grace shifts him to her shoulder and burps him. “Estela, you want to carry him for the next leg?”

“If it's all right with you, I would love to.”

Grace grins at Alodia. “Estela is very good with him.”

In spite of myself, I blush at the compliment as I strap myself into the papoose and settle my little nephew inside.

“Well...I might as well say it. I may not be thrilled about who my father is, but I did get a decent brother and sister-in-law out of the deal, and an even better nephew.”

“There is no need to get sentimental, Estela,” Aleister scoffs, but he can't quite hide the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Alodia beams, her eyes shimmering.

“...God, I love you guys...”

“Everyone ready to move on?” Jake asks, standing. Craig groans.

“What's the rush, bro? We just sat down.”

“Well, we've still got a ways to go if we're gonna reach Elyys'tel by nightfall. Besides, I have a feeling you're gonna wanna move.”

“Huh? What're you talking abo--”

Craaaaaaaaaaaaaaig!” Craig turns just in time to see a diminuitive blue figure streak out of the trees and barrel into him. In his surprise, he yelps and tips over into the dirt. Taari laughs delightedly. “I tackled you!”

“Sneaky kid!” Craig snorts, pushing the Vaanti boy off him and sitting up to pull him into a headlock. Taari giggles, flailing and slapping at Craig's arms.

“Let me go, Craig!”

“No way! By next year, you're gonna be too big for me to headlock! I'm taking advantage while I still can!” But after a light noogie, he lets the boy go. Jake snickers, holding out his hand for Taari to clap.

“Nice going, Blueberry. He never saw you coming.”

“That's Taari?!” Alodia gasps.

“Of course it's me!” Taari says reproachfully, turning to face her. When he sees who just said that, his jaw drops. “...Alodia...?”

Alodia lifts her hand, giving a little wave. For once Taari seems to be at a loss for words, standing slack-jawed as a handful of Vaanti warriors emerge from the trees with T'kal beside them.

“Have we been properly announced, Taari?” Varyyn quips. “Because if we have...”

The stunned silence envelopes them, too. None of them can take their eyes off the small blonde woman who stands among us, blushing under their disbelieving gaze. Her earlier merriment seems to have given way to anxiety. She puts me in mind of a frightened child on her first day of school as she edges closer to Jake. Finally, Varyyn clears his throat.

“Well. This is indeed an auspicious day. Taari, perhaps you will accept the honor of going ahead to tell Elyyshar Seraxa that the Endless has returned to us.”

* * *

The news has already traveled through the Elyys'tel by the time we make it there. Seraxa, wearing the sheer drop veil of a female elyyshar, is waiting to meet us. Her eyes find Alodia right away and immediately fill with tears.

“So it is true...” she whispers. She gulps, approaching with her hand outstretched. “...My friend...welcome home.”

Alodia clasps the extended forearm. “I am so glad to be back here.”

“Come. Come to the main platform. I will officially announce your return.” She hurries us up into the branches of Elyys'tel, up to the main platform outside the audience chamber. As we pass, Vaanti stream from their homes to catch a glimpse of the Twelfth Catalyst.

Five years ago, Varyyn had sculpted the narrative that explained how the battle against Rourke ended to his people. The twelve catalysts together had defeated the Hydra and prevented Raan'losti, he told them. Eleven of us had survived to return to our own people across the sea, with the promise that we would not forget our friends in Elyys'tel. But the twelfth, the one who had become the Endless, had sacrificed her body to defeat the Hydra, returning her soul to the stars. Would she one day return? He could not say. I didn't understand then why he didn't say no, that she would not come back. Now I'm glad he didn't commit to one answer. Perhaps he always knew she would return, since their minds had once been linked. But I doubt he ever imagined it would be so soon.

On the main platform, Seraxa raises her hands and a silence settles over the Vaanti. “My people! Each year on this day, we welcome back the eleven Catalysts who brought us through Raan'losti! But today is truly a joyous day, for today we welcome back the twelfth child of the stars! We thought Raan'losti had claimed her, but by the grace of Vaanu, she has returned!”

“By the grace of Vaanu indeed,” Alodia mutters out of the side of her mouth. Her smile looks a little stiff as she waves awkwardly at the cheering Vaanti crowds.

“Uh, Elyyshar Seraxa?” Diego murmurs. “I think Alodia is feeling a little overwhelmed right now. Think we could get her out of the public eye for a little while?”

“Hmm? Oh! Of course, of course. Come inside the audience hall.”

She ushers us all inside, and we make ourselves comfortable. I pass my nephew back to his father. Seraxa's attention remains mostly on Alodia.

“This is quite a happy ocassion, old friend. But most unexpected. The Vaanti grieved for you when Varyyn told us what had happened. As we understand it, we owe Raan'losti's safe resolution to you.”

“...I would try to be humble about it, but it's true,” Alodia replies a little tiredly. “...I don't know if Varyyn explained, but it turns out that I am a true daughter of Vaanu. I was created from its energy and the hopes and dreams and fears of the other Catalysts. I had no existence beyond the Island, and I was in fact the missing piece of the Island's Heart. In the end, Vaanu revealed to me that there were three paths I could have taken. I could have given the Hydra what he asked for, and in return, he would have given me a complete human existence, but I would have sacrificed the Vaanti to do so. I could have returned the stolen energy to the Island's Heart and Raan'losti would have been prevented, but the world outside this island would have burned. ...What I ultimately chose was to save both the Vaanti and the human world outside. But that meant giving myself back to Vaanu.”

Seraxa takes this in stride, nodding thoughtfully. “...Varyyn told us that you had returned to the stars, sacrificing your body to defeat the Hydra and stop Raan'losti. He did not explain in great detail.”

“The details do not seem to surprise you.”

“...After everything, do you think it would surprise me that the one who became the Endless was more than an average human? Or that she might have been faced with temptation as all great heroes are?”

Alodia smiles wryly. “...I recall you once enthusiastically calling for our deaths because you feared we might destroy you.”

“The Three Tribes War had left me jaded and angry,” she concedes. “And embittered towards what you taught us as the Endless. For years, I had barely even believed in you. I was fully prepared to hate you. But then you saved Taari's life.”

“...And yet Uqzhaal turned on me when he learned the truth,” Alodia murmurs. “He had been so keen to argue on our behalf, but when he learned the truth of my identity, he tried to have me poisoned.”

“I fear Uqzhaal never truly saw you, my friend,” Seraxa replies solemnly. “I freely admit that I was far too hot-blooded and battle-hungry when we first met, but I do not think I was ever wrong in thinking that Uqzhaal was too fanatical in his faith. ...For all the value and truth in the teachings of the Endless, his faith could not withstand the revelation that they had come from a human who acted out of love for her own people, not his.”

“But yours could?”

“What was left of it,” she chuckles. “Truth be told, it made perfect sense to me. I had come to know a young woman who rather reminded me of myself in her passion and hotheadedness. To protect my people, I had called for the slaughter of twelve young people who had been thrown into the thick of something they barely comprehended. It was not hard to empathize when the Endless' motivation was explained. ...Besides, by the time I learned the truth of you, Raan'losti had come and ended peacefully, and you had sacrificed yourself to save us. It would have been ungracious of me to hold against you the fact that the Vaanti could not keep from fighting amongst themselves.”

Alodia smiles gratefully. “...Perhaps there is something to be said for being a skeptic.”

“...I have to ask though...why have you returned?”

“Why or how? Both questions have very complicated answers and I'm not entirely sure I have all the facts in either case. ...I didn't want to give up my humanity or my existence. I wanted to stay with my friends. I gave myself up to save everyone, but I didn't want to stay away. I was always reaching back. What actually gave me the power to regain human form, I am not certain. ...But...”

She trails off. As her silence continues, Seraxa starts to look concerned. Varyyn exhales slowly.

“...Seraxa, Alodia's reappearance has coincided with an event in the human world involving a time crystal.”

“...What? But that's impossible. You told me that the time crystals vanished when the soul of Vaanu returned to the stars...”

“They did. On our island. But it seems a rival of the Hydra managed to smuggle one off the island many years ago.”

“We're not entirely sure that the crystal did come from La Huerta,” I say quickly. “But the timing is decidedly suspicious. Still, there is no reason to panic. Legally, La Huerta belongs to me and to Aleister, and we intend to continue protecting the Vaanti as we always have.”

“...But we shouldn't be cavalier, either,” Alodia says lowly. “...Jake...you said there was a missing persons report on me?”

“Yeah. ...A cold case. Five years old. I think as far as the outside world is going to be concerned now, you disappeared on La Huerta.”

“Not inaccurate. But now I'm back. I think we are going to have to control the narrative very carefully here. If the authorities have any reason to investigate La Huerta further, it could lead them straight to the Vaanti. I don't intend to let that happen.”

“Is it as complicated as all that?” Aleister wonders. “Surely it was presumed that you were a victim of my father's madness.”

“Were none of you ever questioned about me? If I won the same trip the rest of you did, if the name Alodia Chandler was on the list of winners, surely someone would have asked why I didn't come back with you.”

“Well, yes, but at the time...” I trail off, frowning. Of course, at the time we returned from the island, Alodia Chandler didn't exist in the outside world. But just like that, I can remember being questioned on the missing contest winner. “...We were. We were questioned.”

“What did you say?”

“I...I'm not sure...”

“Rourke was accused of kidnapping us,” Michelle points out. “And he did always take a special interest in Alodia.”

“He called her 'The Mystery,' once,” Sean confirms. “He probably realized she had a connection to the Endless even before he knew she was the Endless.”

“...There was one timeline where he stuck me in a stasis pod for five years,” Alodia remarks. “Maybe that's where I've been.”

I shake my head. “The authorities did investigate the remains of The Celestial and MASADA and the LHO, and found the hotel guests. Why wouldn't they have found you?”

“Perhaps Rourke had me holed up somewhere special. If he had managed to get the totally crazy idea that I was some sort of alien/angel creature whose power he could harness...”

“He was raving about 'crystal people' at his trial,” Zahra sneers. “Maybe he thought you were one of those.”

“...He did,” Diego says darkly. “...It's just like we told them. Why he took such an interest in Allie particularly was never clear, but we didn't really think there was much logic to it. The man's insane, after all.”

Even as he says it, I can remember telling the authorities that Rourke had become obsessed with Alodia over the six months we were there.

“...How did it happen?” I ask slowly. “How did it happen that one day you were there with us and the next, you were gone?”

“...I think...” Jake replies thoughtfully, “...that's basically all we told them. Rourke kept us together for the most part, but at one point, he took Alodia off somewhere in the Observatory and we just...didn't get her back.”

We all know it didn't actually happen that way. We knew it then. But just like that, we can remember feeding that line to the authorities. Explaining why Alodia Chandler never came back from the island, even though we all knew she had never existed until we entered the time bubble. Time appears to be repairing itself around Alodia's return, retconning her into the world. And as the only ones who know the truth, it is the Catalysts' duty to conceal the seams. Diego shivers a little.

“I'm not sure if this feels more like Doctor Who or Bill and Ted, but either way, I'm expecting to turn around and find a phone booth behind me.”

“Either way, it's making my brain hurt,” Craig grumbles. Diego elbows him lightly.

“What are you complaining about? I've got twenty years worth of new memories I'm trying to sort out!”

“Twenty years, two-thousand one-hundred thirty-nine time loops, plus five years as an incorporeal crystal alien,” Alodia counters, smirking. “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Zahra snorts with laughter. “Gotta admit, she's got everyone beat here.”

Alodia frowns suddenly. “...Did anyone talk to my family? My aunt and uncle? Jake, did you...?”

Jake shakes his head. “I never told anyone but my sister that I'd been married to you. ...Also you came up a few times in the last five years when I...well...”

“...Had sex,” she finishes gently. “And dated. You've already told me you had other partners, you don't need to be afraid of saying it aloud. I don't hold it against you.”

“Right. Well...in any case, I know you weren't all that close with your legal guardians. I felt awkward intruding on them and having to explain who I was.”

“I've kept up with them a little,” Diego says. “But we had kinda become strangers since you and I left for college. I wasn't much comfort to them.”

“I wonder if they'd even be all that glad to have me back.” She sighs. “...Estela, can I talk to you privately for a moment?”

I start a little at the request. “Uh...sure. Let's go outside.”

We step outside the audience chamber and cross the bridge to the opposite platform. Alodia begins pacing agitatedly. I step back to let her, watching quietly for a moment. But when her silence stretches on, I clear my throat. Her breath shudders as she inhales.

“Estela, I have a question. It's going to sound crazy, even by our standards. So, when I ask it, I would take it as a personal favor if you did not stare at me like I've just sprouted a second head.”

“I find it hard to believe you could ask me anything that would sound that crazy.”

She exhales slowly. “...Have you seen your mother?”

 

Chapter Text

Estela

 

I probably should have known better than to get cocky. As the silence stretches on between us, her mouth twists sulkily. “Come on, Estela, I really didn't want you to look at me like that...”

“Sorry. It's just...my mother is...”

“Dead. I know. But so was Mike when I gave myself back to Vaanu. And he turned up alive. I think I felt guilty leaving Jake less than an hour after he watched Mike die again, and I begged Vaanu for that one favor. But...I can't imagine that I wouldn't have...no...I'm sure I did at least ask if you could have your mother back, too...”

She's speaking so quickly that her words barely have time to register before I'm focusing on her next sentence. But then she abruptly trails off, and my brain has a chance to catch up.

“...It's...been five years,” I say slowly. “If somehow my mother was restored, I can't imagine that she wouldn't have come back to San Trobida sooner than this...”

Alodia's shoulders sag. She looks disappointed. More disappointed than I feel. Perhaps I should be more crushed, but the truth is that it has been eleven years now since my mother's death, and such a fleeting, barely believable glimmer of hope is too little to excite me. It doesn't even feel disloyal to admit it.

“...I'm sorry, Estela. I just hoped...”

“It's all right. It's not your fault.”

“That whole moment is just...such a blur...”

“Why not come back inside?”

“...No...I think I need some fresh air. You go on, though. I'm just going to wander a bit.”

 

Quinn

 

No one can help being curious and worried when Estela returns to the audience hall alone, but she quickly assures us that nothing is wrong.

“She...was wondering if it was possible my mother had been restored along with Mike. I think she's a little disappointed that she wasn't.”

“I...should I go after her?” Jake asks uncertainly. “I...don't want to crowd her...but...”

“Let her have a few minutes to herself,” I reply. “She's in Elyys'tel. No one here is going to let any harm come to her.”

He shoves his hands into his pockets, pouting a little. “I know...It's just...”

Sean puts a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, we all get it, man. But you said yourself you don't want to crowd her.”

“She must be feeling so crazy disoriented right now,” Diego sighs. “A little solitude might do her a world of good.”

“Why don't we all go down to the beach?” Varyyn suggests. “Taari has been eager to play with you.”

As we make our way down to the beach, we spot Alodia on one of the far platforms, stretched out on her back with her hands laced behind her bed, staring up into the magnificent canopy above her.

On the beach, Taari immediately claims Estela and Zahra to team up with him for quuk'tanoi. Varyyn, Seraxa, and Diego volunteer to oppose them.

“You gonna earn your mask today, buddy?” Diego asks, grinning.

“I'm gonna try!” Taari replies.

“Do not imagine we will go easy on you,” Varyyn warns. Taari scoffs.

“You never do anyway. Even if I wanted you to, you wouldn't.”

“That's right.”

The six of them gather their sailboards and splash into the ocean. The others drift off towards various games and activities set up on the beach. It's like the Valinorim all over again. Except that this time, it's in honor of the Catalysts. I amuse myself with the children, playing a game that involves seashells and coconuts until I spot Alodia hovering near the treeline like a seventh grader at a dance working up the nerve to ask her crush onto floor. I smile, wandering over to her.

“Thinking of joining us? You're welcome to, of course.”

She smiles a little. “...The last time I played Vaanti games was at the Valinorim.”

I chuckle. “I was just thinking of that myself.”

“...I was more remembering what had happened before that.”

I feel my smile slip. “You mean when you saved my life with the Island's Heart.”

She nods. “...Do you remember much of what happened on that bridge?”

“Not...too much. I...I was fading. It was hard to focus on anything. I don't even think I really realized what was happening to me.”

“I knew exactly what was happening. I had seen it before, when we both touched your idol on Sharktooth Isle. That's why I started crying then. Because I had just watched you die in my arms on a bridge in Elyys'tel. I didn't realize then how soon it was going to happen. When it started to happen in front of me...I begged you not to go. I was furious and terrified that this was happening when I hadn't had a chance to stop it yet. And if I couldn't save you...”

“You did, though. You saved all of us. Everything.” She reaches out a hand to me, and I take it, squeezing.

“I never really had the chance to explain about those idols, did I.”

“Well, you told us that you were watching us die, and I think we all guessed those were visions of previous timelines, but...we never got details, no.”

“It wasn't just your deaths that I saw. I saw visions from your pasts, too. It's how I knew that Michelle never actually cheated on Sean...” She trails off, frowning. “...Wait...did they ever tell you guys about that? Did I just blab someone's embarrassing secret?”

“No, don't worry. Michelle told me. But I don't know how many of the others know.”

“...Right...well...I saw visions from your pasts. From before the island. Everyone's except Diego's. ...I don't know why I never questioned that...”

“Wait, but...you had an idol, too. Did...you see your own past?”

“...I saw myself talking to Diego, encouraging him to go to the party he'd been talking about all week. ...I suppose if that actually happened, he was talking to himself...”

“Did...you see your own death?”

“No. Worse. Just before you collapsed on the bridge, I saw myself alone, digging eleven graves.”

As the gravity of her words settles in, I shudder. “I guess that must have made you pretty desperate.”

“I would have been desperate either way. But yes. That vision made everything that much larger.”

“You know...I never actually knew you were the Endless, or the missing piece of the Island's Heart...but from the time I was cured, I was able to sense that you were...different somehow. That you were connected to the same spirit that was riding inside me. There was an energy in you that matched the one in me, but it seemed like it was...locked behind something.”

“In retrospect, that makes perfect sense. ...Why didn't you tell me?”

“Probably for the same reason you never told us about the visions from the idols. A combination of fear and a desire not to face a bunch of questions I didn't have answers to.”

“Fair enough.” She is quiet for a long moment. “Do you...feel anything of Vaanu now?”

“...Not that I can tell, no. I figure it took itself out of me when it left.”

“But presumably Silas Prescott's crystal had enough energy to bring me back.” She sighs. “I wish I could remember more about Vaanu's home planet...about what the crystals actually were. The crystals weren't Vaanu itself. They weren't actually part of its body or its spirit. That was the Island's Heart...and...the crystal pillar...” She hisses suddenly, grimacing, bringing a hand up to clutch her head.

“Are you okay?”

“I'm getting the feeling I'm going to get tired of that question,” she replies wryly. In spite of myself, I chuckle.

“I know the feeling.”

She lifts her head to smile at me. For a long moment, she is quiet, just looking at me. I look back, willing myself to be patient, to wait until she feels that she can say what's on her mind. I refuse to push her.

“...Do you remember after you were cured, when you told me about feeling a kind of...grief?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you ever feel...overwhelmed? By the thought of living a full life? Finishing school, finding a job, possibly getting married and having a family? Growing old?”

“Of course. ...Is...that what you're feeling now?”

“Yeah. Of course. I mean, I didn't live with the idea that it wouldn't happen as long as you did. When things got hard, I would imagine my future. But...in retrospect, the future I imagined was all about you guys. Everything Vaanu showed us. You founding a non-profit, Diego writing a book, Jake clearing his name, Sean becoming a football star...all I really imagined for myself was living with Jake, and maybe having his kids...”

“Do you not want that anymore?”

“Oh, I still want it, don't you worry about that. At least, I still want him. And his kids if he wants any. I like the idea of having kids, but I don't need them if he doesn't. Either way, though...that might be something for further down the line. But my point is that because I was born for all of you...I never truly thought about a future for myself outside of you. And then that became moot. But now...”

“Now there's a world of possibility in front of you.”

“Yeah. And I don't really know where to start.”

I feel a kind of relief flooding through me at that. I expect she and the others may have felt something similar when I started to talk about the future as something I needed to prepare for.

“What was your major at Hartfeld?”

“History, I think. With a minor in dance.”

“Oh, that's right. You were a dancer, weren't you? I think I remember that...”

“Yup. And a gymnast. I was pretty good at it, too. But I didn't have nearly the dedication to make an Olympic career out of it or anything.”

“Do you know what you wanted to do with your history degree?”

“...Walk through the world and get to know the people who walked that ground thousands of years before me...”

I feel a chill creep over my shoulders. There's something terribly beautiful and haunting in the sentiment.

“Well...I'm sure you can take a little time to figure it out. As far as the world is concerned you've been lost for five years. I'm sure everyone will forgive you if you don't dive right into the business of paying bills and taxes.”

“You're probably right. ...But it's still scary to think about.”

“Of course it is. But that's why it's okay not to rush into it.”

She frowns a little. “...Hey...why is Murphy still around?”

“...I...think you would know better than I would.”

“T'kal is still here, too. What about the Yeti?”

“We...haven't seen her since Vaanu left. Or Cetus, or any of the Guardians. I think Cetus and the Shore Guardian are still dead. But I don't know about the Deep Guardian. We haven't had much reason to go into the volcano.”

“...But clearly, not all of the anomalies were taken away...”

“Maybe...it just wasn't possible to undo everything...”

“Maybe not. ...Vaanu's arrival sent a shockwave over the planet. Compared to that, T'kal and Murphy and I are just pebbles thrown in a pond. What concerns me is that any one of us has the potential to make waves.”

“But you don't think you have the power to break reality like Vaanu?”

“I don't think so, no.”

“And if you don't, I doubt that T'kal or Murphy do, either.”

“You're probably right,” she sighs. For a moment, she is quiet, looking out over the water. The quuk'tanoi game is tied two-to-two. Taari just barely manages to keep Varyyn from ending it with the winning goal. Her gaze shifts to further down the beach. In somewhat shallower water, a series of narrow wooden posts rise above water's rippling surface. I remember Michelle and Craig facing off against Varyyn and Diego in that event at the Valinorim. The dueling staves are lying on the sand. Alodia abruptly strips down to the bathing suit I've loaned her for the week and starts toward the water.

“Where are you going?”

“To see if I still have the right stuff.”

She wades into the ocean, swimming out to the posts and mounting the nearest one in a single graceful motion. She balances carefully on its flat, narrow top, barely large enough for the balls of both her feet. She starts tentatively at first, just stepping from one post to the next. Gradually, she starts to fold in a pirouette or two. Jake and Sean take notice and start to wander over, followed by a few of the others. Alodia starts to add in some handstands and flips. A crowd of Vaanti and Catalysts starts to form as she starts to move faster and more artistically. One of the Vaanti begins pounding out a rhythm for her on a traditional drum. She moves with it, dancing over the posts with cat-like balance and grace. Some of the Vaanti start singing and chanting. I find myself clapping to the beat of the drummer. It seems to motivate her. She is dancing for an audience now, aiming to impress and inspire. Finally, she stills, ending in a crouch on the center post. Even from the shore, I can see the sweat glistening on her skin and the way her breasts heave with exertion. The crowd erupts into enthusiastic applause and cheers.

I notice Jake starting into the water, his pace somewhat hurried as he swims out to the posts. I quickly realize why as Alodia wobbles slightly in her attempt to slip off the post and into the water. She could probably do with a little help getting back to shore. She's trembling a little as she climbs out of the water, leaning on Jake. She smiles sheepishly.

“I think I'm going to be feeling that in the morning.”

“Maybe, but that was frickin' awesome!” Craig exclaims. “Where did you learn to do that?!”

“Uh...gymnastics classes? I think the real question should be where I learned to do that in the timeline where I never existed before the island.”

“Well, that's easy,” Diego remarks. “Being able to do cool stunts was one of the superhero powers I imagined for you.”

She snorts. “That's not a power, that's a skill. Couldn't you have given me the power of flight or something? I've always wanted to fly.”

“What, time travel isn't good enough for you?”

“Well, you didn't dream that up for me, that was a side effect of being part-alien.”

Diego grins. “...I challenge anyone to say they've got a cooler best friend than I do.”

“Next time we play quuk'tanoi,” Taari declares, “she's on my team!”

I start a little at the sound of his voice. I am embarrassed to admit that I missed the end of the game.

“How did you do out there, Taari?”

“He has not yet earned his mask,” Varyyn says. “But it will not be long. He put up a good fight.”

“Say, I got an idea,” Jake pipes up. “I'm guessing Alodia needs to rest tonight after that display, but what's say tomorrow we get the old dream team back together? Me, Cap, and Princess against Varyyn, Seraxa, and Taari.”

“Well, I'm game if Alodia is,” Sean says, grinning.

“I...I don't know. It's been years since I played...”

“It's been years since you were on a balance beam, too,” Diego points out.

“After that display, I'd be more concerned about those two weighing you down,” Seraxa agrees, nodding at Jake and Sean with a smirk.

“Hey, watch it,” Jake retorts. “Remember what underestimating us got you last time.”

“Well...” Alodia smiles, and I can see her trying to hide her eagerness. “We'll see how my body feels in the morning. If I'm walking like an old lady, I'm out.”

 

Varyyn

 

We spend the last daylight hours in play on the shore. Alodia appears to have recovered from whatever melancholy mood had gripped her earlier. Though her performance on the sparring poles has exhausted her, she engages in conversation, laughing and telling jokes with the Catalysts and the Vaanti. She listens eagerly to Taari's stories of the last five years in Elyys'tel, and shares in the feasting back in the village.

The skies have turned dark by the time the feasting is over. Seraxa has shuffled Taari off to bed, and the Catalysts have drifted off towards their beds. When Diego begins yawning, I encourage him to wait for me in our hammock, but I am not quite ready to join him there. At first, I'm not sure what it is that compels me to make my way up the top platform instead of joining my beloved in blissful sleep, but the urge is to overwhelming to ignore. When I arrive there, I find Alodia, staring out at the stars glittering above the ocean. I stop dead in my tracks when I realize what precisely drew me up here.

… I can still feel her. Her presence remains on the edges of my mind, a consciousness separate from my own. For five years, it was gone. But I must have felt it return the same moment she did.

“Anlashokk,” I murmur.

“You feel it too, then?” she asks in Vaanti.

“I did not realize it until now. But yes. I do. We are still linked.”

“So we are.”

“Do you suppose it means anything?”

“As far as I can tell, it means that I am the daughter of Vaanu, and you are Vaanti, whose ancestors imbibed the sap from the tree nurtured by my parent's energy. It means that on a beach five and a half years ago, you touched my forehead and broke the barrier between our minds so that we could communicate. ...It means that we are who we are, and that has not been fundamentally altered either by Vaanu's leaving this planet or my returning to it.”

“...Do you want Diego or the others to know?”

She sighs, leaning back against Elyys'tel's massive trunk. “I do not think it should be a secret, but I do not feel the need to tell them, either. I do not mind if you tell Diego. Perhaps I will tell the others in time, if it feels necessary.”

I nod. “It is your decision.”

She is quiet for a long time. When she speaks again, it is in English. “Varyyn? How come you never turned on me? When you learned that I was the Endless?”

I could tell her that she was never really the Endless, that the Endless was an alternate version of herself, but part of the advantage of having her in my mind is knowing when I would only be wasting words. It would not comfort her to hear that. But I believe the truth might.

“Because of Diego.”

She sighs. “I see. Because he loves me and you love him, you couldn't hate me.”

“No. Well, yes. But that's not why I didn't turn on you.”

“I don't follow.”

It is my turn to be silent for awhile, looking out over the still, peaceful water. “...Do you remember the previous timelines? Those lives you lived before?”

“Not all of them. And not all the time. I think they've been largely repressed as a matter of self-preservation.”

“...The Endless went back to change the Vaanti because the meeting between the Vaanti and the Catalysts always ended with the Catalysts slaughtered.”

“...Yes.”

“...Do you...do you know if I was ever there?”

The look she passes to me suggests that she had never considered the question before. “I...I don't know, Varyyn. I suppose it's possible some version of you was there. Though...you probably were not recognizable. Whatever version of Varyyn lived in those timelines before the Endless changed you would have been feral like the other Vaanti. Part of what makes you the Varyyn we know is your upbringing. And you were raised with the Endless' teachings.”

The relief that floods through me is so strong that I feel my knees weaken, but I manage to stay upright, gripping the rope support in front of me. A knot of tears crystalizes in my throat.

“...Since the Endless revealed herself to us in the temple, since she took off her helmet and showed us your aged face, since she revealed that it was in an attempt to keep her loved ones alive that she made herself a god to us...I have wondered if I was there when the Catalysts were slaughtered. I have wondered...” I choke, swallowing hard before continuing, “...In my nightmares, I can see the day Cetus killed my mother. That happened right in front of me. That memory is barely more real than the images my mind conjures up of the Catalysts being slaughtered by the Vaanti. I can see Diego. ...I can see him on his knees, begging for his life. For his friends' lives. I don't want to imagine things like this, but I cannot help it. My mind tortures me, filling in every detail. Who he has already seen die. Who is still living, still begging, still frightened, still fighting, still weeping.

“I can't bear to think of it, but I do. All the time. I see him die, Alodia. My mind shows me his death, and I want to tear apart the one who held the spear with my bare hands. ...But then I realize that it might have been me. There might have been a time when I heard his cries and his pleas and was unmoved. There might have been a time when I looked into his eyes and felt nothing. When I saw his fear and his anguish and never felt the desire to take him in my arms and fight any who would harm him.” I look at her, my tears flowing freely now. “...How could I condemn you for loving him more than I did then? For never wavering in that love, and doing everything in your power to save him?”

Her mouth twists, her eyes shimmering in the moonlight. “...It wasn't you, Varyyn. You did not come into being until after the Endless changed your people. I don't care if the Vaanti who killed Diego was the only son of your parents, it wasn't you. You are my best friend's soulmate.”

“...And you are the woman who brought hope to my people. You brought my soulmate to my side. And you will always have my friendship.”

“As you will have mine.” She smiles, wiping her eyes. “...I should probably find my own soulmate. I expect he won't sleep until he knows I haven't vanished again.”

I offer her my arm as we descend the winding platforms. She still looks worn out from her performance earlier, and I fear in her exhausted state that she will stagger and invite disaster. After seeing her safely into Jake's arms, I make my way to my own beloved.

He appears to be asleep already, his arms resting on his belly, his head lolled to one side. But as I climb carefully into the hammock beside him, he stirs, turning to nestle into me. I draw him to my chest.

“It has been too long since I slept with you in my arms,” I murmur, kissing his hair.

“It's only been three nights.”

“That might as well be an eternity, my darling.”

He snorts, lifting his head to kiss me. We lie nose-to-nose beneath the canopy of leaves and stars. He winds his arm around me and lets his fingertips trail gently up and down my back, making me shiver. His breath is warm on my face. I let my hand slip under his shirt, gently massaging along his narrow torso. I want to feel his body. I want to feel every inch of his flesh, warm with lifeblood. I press my palm to his breastbone, feeling his heart thump against my skin.

“You sure sleeping is all you want to do?” he chuckles teasingly. In spite of myself, I feel a hot blush blooming in my cheeks.

“...Sleeping is never all I want to do when you are in my arms, my love. ...But I do not think our present location is the proper place for anything else.”

“Maybe not,” he concedes, but I hear a note of mischief in his voice. He brings his hand up to stroke my cheek, and lets his thumb trail over my lips. “But we don't have to stay here, do we. We know all the secluded romantic spots in Elyys'tel.”

He shifts, kissing down my neck toward my chest. I can't help laughing. “An hour ago, you were yawning!”

“Maybe so, but I've had a nice little nap. And I've been dreaming of you playing quuk'tanoi. It's got me in the mood.”

“Well then,” I roll out of the hammock and offer him my hand. “The moon is beautiful tonight, my darling. Let us not waste it.”

He accepts my hand, climbing out of the hammock. As soon as his feet touch the ground, I sweep him into my arms, cradling him. He laughs, winding his arms around my neck.

“I think you're in the mood too, sweetheart.”

I bend to capture his mouth in a kiss. “Hold on tight,” I whisper against his mouth. “Don't let go of me.”

He tightens his grip. “Never, Varyyn. Not as long as I live.” He lets his head drop onto my shoulder. “I promise.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Alodia

A prison chamber. Two rooms. One is an interrogation room, the other a cell with a cot and a plain, functional toilet and sink of stainless steel. Between them, a heavy locked door and an observation window of thick glass. I huddle in the corner of the cell, dressed in a dull gray jumpsuit. My head is swimming. Rourke has taken my friends. He's taken them and hidden them from me and no one will tell me if they're safe. Faceless Arachnid soldiers come in from time to time to hold me down and draw my blood, and then they leave. I am fed, but I can't eat much. When I eat, half of it comes back up again into the stinking stainless steel toilet.

The door to the interrogation room opens. I close my eyes, curling in on myself. I don't want to see who it is. But then I hear a familiar voice.

“My god! Father, what have you done to her?!” Aleister cries. There is real distress in his voice, and that startles me enough to make me look up. The last I saw of Aleister, he was betraying us, turning us over to his father. Now he looks at me through the observation window and he looks like he might cry. Rourke and Lila are with him.

“She is resistant. She doesn't understand yet what needs to be done, nor how essential a role she plays.”

“So you've tortured her?!”

“I have done nothing of the sort!”

“One of your minions, then?”

“No one has tortured her, Aleister,” Rourke snaps, sounding irritated.

“Let me in!”

“Of course, my boy,” Rourke sighs, rolling his eyes. “It's why we're here.”

I hear the door unlock. Reflexively, I recoil, pulling myself more tightly against the wall. Aleister hurries toward me, though he mercifully pauses a few feet away. He kneels slowly, holding his hand out to me as if I am a stray kitten he is trying to coax out from under a bush. I probably look like one, dusty and dirty as I am, with my hair tangled and matted.

“Alodia? It's all right. We're not here to hurt you.”

I stare at him through a dirty curtain of tangled blonde hair that falls over my face. I shouldn't trust him. He's the reason I'm in this cell. But his voice is so gentle, and I am so desperate for a kind, familiar face that I find myself drawing a little closer. I cough a little. My lips are dry and cracking. They hurt when I move them to speak, and I can taste blood.

“...Water...” I croak. “Please...”

Aleister rushes away, returning a moment later with a canteen. He opens it and holds it out to me. I snatch it from his hand and gulp the contents. Water fills my mouth and trickles out the sides as I chug, but I don't care. When the canteen is empty, I let it fall from my hands, curling back into the corner. It sloshes sickeningly in my belly, slightly swollen with it. I will myself not to throw it back up, even as I feel my body spasm with retroperistalsis.

“Alodia...” he whispers. “I'm sorry. Please believe me. I'm so sorry.”

“Where are the others? Are they all right?”

“...I...don't know...”

I raise my eyes to meet his. “Where is Grace?”

His mouth twists with agony. “...Dead.”

The word lands on me like a physical blow. I recoil further. “...You're lying.”

“...Do you really imagine I would lie about that? It was a virus. Something native to this island. She had to be placed in quaratine, I couldn't even...” His voice breaks. “...Father says you could undo it...”

“...What?”

“The power we have discovered in you in unparalleled. Only the Endless itself is nearly as strong,” Rourke says. “All we need is for you to allow us to unlock your power and you can turn back the clock. Save Grace. Save anyone you wish. Save the world.”
“...I don't believe Grace would thank me for that.”

“Alodia, please,” Lila begs. “Just hear him out.”

I shake my head hard. “I can't, Lila! He can't be trusted!” I look desperately at Aleister. “He's playing you, Aleister, just like he always is! Do you really think all he wants is to bring Grace back?!”

“I think he can do it! That's all that matters!”

“At what cost, though?! If I give him whatever power is inside me, what will he do with it? Come to think of it, what will it do to me to give it up?!”

That actually seems to give him pause. He looks back at Rourke. “...Father...?”

“You have my word, Alodia. You will come to no harm.”

I consider for a moment, only for a moment. Then, I shake my head. “No. Last time you gave your word, we lost Craig. Now Grace is gone, too. I'm not losing anyone else on your word!”

Aleister recoils from me now, tears dripping from his anguished eyes. Lila suddenly looks fearful. Rourke, however, regards me with pitying amusement.

“Oh, Alodia...do you still not realize that my word is all that is protecting you or your friends here? One way or another, you are going to see reason.” He clasps his hands behind his back, striding to the observation window. “But I grow impatient waiting. Perhaps it is time I raise the stakes. ...Lila. Which of the Selected do you believe Alodia is closest to?”

I look up sharply, feeling my breath catch in my throat. My heart goes cold and drops like a stone into my belly. Lila, noticing my distress, swallows hard. But she averts her eyes and answers, “Diego. Or Jake. Diego is her best friend and Jake is her lover.”

“And which do you believe could persuade her faster?”

Lila keeps her eyes firmly on the wall in front of her. “Diego. He is more dependent on her, and much less resilient than Jake. Much less in his element. Jake has a military history. He'll be much more resistant to torture.”

The last word goes through me like a knife. I feel my gorge rising. “No...” I whimper. “Rourke, please...”

Rourke ignores me. “Mmm. Interesting. Do you agree, Aleister?”

I look desperately at Aleister, but he will not meet my eyes now, either. “...Not necessarily. It is true that Jake has been conditioned to resist torture more. But Diego is in love with a Hostile. I believe that will strengthen his resistance.”

“Aleister!” I cry. “What the hell are you doing, you bastard?!”

“Very interesting,” Rourke murmurs, smirking. “I expect either would work. But...I have felt Commander Lundgren growing restless of late. Perhaps I will throw him a bone. Lila, call him in. Tell him to bring Jake McKenzie with him. He should be prepared.”

“No!” I try to go for Lila, but in my weakened state, Rourke is easily faster. His arm whips around and slams into my belly, knocking the wind out of me and sending me sprawling backward. This time, I can't hold back the sickness, and about half the water I gulped down comes back up again in a burning acid wave. I lay moaning, struggling to catch my breath, struggling to turn away from the stinking puddle beside my head.

“The longer you resist,” Rourke says flatly, “The more they will suffer.”

I slowly drag myself upright, gasping. As I raise my head, I see the door to the interrogation room open on the other side of the window. Lundgren enters with two Arachnid soldiers who drag Jake between them, shackled hand and foot.

“Jake!” My voice comes out strangled and distorted. His head snaps up and his eyes widen. He starts to struggle against the soldiers who hold him fast.

“Alodia!” He turns his furious gaze on Rourke. “What have you done to her, Phony Stark?! I swear to god if you've harmed one hair on her head--”

Lundgren cuts him off with a violent backhand. “Shut up, Wolf. She ain't the one you ought to be worried about.”

“You ought to be more worried about yoursel—oof!” A punch to the gut makes him crumple to his knees. The Arachnid soldiers hold him down as Lundgren kneels in front of him, drawing a switchblade. He cuts open Jake's shirt, exposing his chest. Then he takes the cigar from his mouth and presses the smoldering end to the bare skin under Jake's collarbone. He goes rigid with the pain, screaming, and I scream with him. Rourke finally pulls the cigar back and Jake slumps, trembling. From his pocket, Rourke fishes a small, metallic device. Jake gasps in agony as Lundgren presses the device against the blistering burn. It sticks.

“Let 'im go,” Lundgren orders the two soldiers. Jake scrambles to his feet and stumbles to the window, pressing his palm against mine through the glass.

“Are you okay, Princess? Did they hurt you?”

I shake my head frantically. “Jake, get out of here. You have to get out. You and all the others have to get out now!”

“I ain't leaving you. Pretty sure the others will say the same.”

“Jake, please! I think they're going to kill you! Please, just run!”

“If you seriously think I'm gonn—augh!” He cuts himself off with a scream, doubling over and crumpling into a heap.

“Jake!”

“Don't kill him just yet, Commander,” Rourke says silkily when the screaming stops for a moment. “I want to see if our most honored guest can be made to understand her power without further loss of life.”

“Princess, whatever he's asking for, don't give hi--” Another protracted scream that I answer with my own. There's a device in Lundgren's hand. It must be connected to the one on Jake's chest. They're torturing him with it. He abruptly goes limp, gasping and trembling.

“Jake! Jake, stay with me! Please, stay with me!”

“I do not wish to kill him, Alodia. I do not wish to kill him, or your friend Diego, or any of them. But I will. If that is what it takes to make you understand.”

Jake's back rends, his muscles going rigid with agony. He's trying not to scream now, but he isn't succeeding. I throw myself against the glass, beating the window with my fists. He goes limp again, whimpering. I look desperately at Aleister, my vision blurred with tears.

“Aleister, please...he's your friend...how can you watch this?!”

“You could save him. You could save Grace. You could save Craig. You could save everything.”

Lundgren's hand moves again. More screaming that goes through me like a lance. I double over, my body spasming with sobs. I can't tell how long it goes on. How many times the pattern repeats. The crescendo of screaming that fades into whimpers and moans. And then the voices floating on top of Jake's pained weeping. Rourke. Aleister. Lila. Asking. Begging. Demanding that I give him my power. I could stop this. I could save Jake. Grace and Craig are dead, but I could save them, too. It breaks me to see him suffering. Breaks through my resistance, my misgivings.

“...Please...please, I'll do anything. Just stop hurting him...”

“Good. Good girl,” Rourke purrs. “You'll see. It will all work out for the best. Commander, kill him.”

“No!” I scream. Suddenly, Aleister and Lila are screaming with me.

“Father, you can't!”

“Mr. Rourke, you said--”

“I can't risk her changing her mind. If she ever does, the Dog will be next.”

“Jake!” I press myself desperately against the window, smacking my palms against the glass. “Jake!”

Lundgren draws a pistol and aims it at the man crumpled on the floor. Jake's eyelids flutter, and he raises his gaze to mine. His expression twists with agony.

“...Don't I even get a few last words?”

Lundgren shrugs. “Why the hell not. Make it quick.”

Jake's eyes hold mine. “...I love you, Alodia. You're gonna make it. You're stronger than anyone I've ever known. ...Look away now, okay? You don't wanna see this.”

“No...Jake, don't leave me...I need you...”

He draws in a shuddering breath, closing his eyes. “...Malfoy, if you still care about her at all, you won't let her watch this part.”

Lundgren raises his pistol again. Aleister breaks away from his father's side to pull me away from the window and turn me toward him. He clasps me hard in his arms, holding my head firmly against his shoulder. I should struggle. I want to struggle. I want to beat on him and tear at him. But as the gunshot splits the air apart, I can only cling back, sobbing brokenly in the arms of the one who brought me to this moment...

 

I wake with a gasp and find myself sweating and shaking in a hammock under Elyys'tel's sheltering branches, entwined in Jake's arms. He's snoring just a little, his head nestled against my shoulder. I shake him gently.

“Jake? Jake, wake up...”

“Huh...? Whasshamup...?” He grunts, clearing his throat. His eyes focus on my face. “Are you okay?”

“I had a bad dream...”

“Yeah?” he asks around a yawn. “What was it about?”

“...A timeline when I failed.”

That seems to bring him around to full consciousness. His arms tighten around me. “...You wanna tell me what happened?”

“...I think...Rourke figured out that he needed me to finish Project Janus. I don't think he actually connected me to the Endless. I'm not sure if he had the Island's Heart...I couldn't really remember. ...But he tried to force me to help him. ...By torturing you in front of me. Or rather, letting Lundgren do it.”

I feel him shudder. “Not gonna lie. That sounds damned awful. ...Lundgren always had a talent for inflicting pain.”

“...I gave in to stop him from hurting you. ...Rourke let him kill you anyway. So I wouldn't change my mind about turning back time. Said if I ever did, Diego would be next. And Grace and Craig were already dead...”

He brings a hand up to stroke my cheek. “But they're not, though. We're all alive because of you.”

“I know. ...But...I'm scared.”

“Something in particular scaring you?”

I close my eyes, breathing in his familiar scent. “...I failed more than two-thousand times. The visions in the idols...the ones the Endless gave me...those were only a fraction. I'm afraid of those memories that haven't surfaced yet. ...I'm scared I'm going to keep seeing you die in my nightmares. You and Diego and Quinn and Grace and Sean and Craig and...everyone...”

“Well, I'll tell you what, Princess. Every time you have a nightmare, I'm gonna be there when you wake up to tell you it's okay. No matter how many times you dream about me dying, I'm still gonna be there when you wake up.”

“...Promise?”

“You know I do.”

I cuddle up in his arms, my head on his chest. In his embrace, my trembling subsides and my heartbeat slows. “I love you so much, Jake.”

“I love you, Alodia.”

“...I think, though...when we get back, we should make it clear that our marriage wasn't legally binding.”

“Why's that? You looking for an easy out?”

The teasing note in his voice makes me think he knows the real answer, but I tell him anyway. “If we tell people we were handfasted in local ceremony, they'll start asking questions about who the locals are. Better they think it was something our friends oversaw when we were imprisoned and convinced we were about to die. ...Besides...I think I'm going to need time to...ease my aunt and uncle into the idea of you. They'll be less resistant if I introduce you as my boyfriend than as my husband. I don't think they'll believe that I could have met you and fallen in love with you in the space of six months.”

“I would say I don't give a crap what they think, but I'm guessing it's not gonna be easy to shake 'em for awhile.”

“I wouldn't imagine so, no.” I lift my head to look him in the eye. “Are you gonna be okay coming with me to California? I mean, I assumed, but...”

“Don't worry about me. I've been working in a dive bar in Louisiana. They can replace me two seconds after I call 'em and say I ain't coming back.” I open my mouth to respond, but he puts a finger to my lips. “No, don't try arguing. I don't care where we end up, long as we're together. You know that.”

I nod, lightly biting his fingertip before letting my head drop onto his chest again. “Yeah. I do.”

“...On the other hand,” he says with a grin in his voice, “I should take care to be on my best behavior, since this is officially gonna be...'meet the family'...”

I chuckle, but I shake my head. “You already know my real family. ...In a way, I'm going to be meeting these people for the first time, too. I have enough memories to know who they are, but I also know that they probably never existed until I was retconned into the world. Or at the very least, I was never a part of their lives...And I should try to stop thinking about this because it just makes me dizzy.”

“Tell you what. Why don't you tell me what you remember about them? Moments from your childhood. Your teenage years. Might make them more real to you.”

I shudder. “...Most of what I remember of my teenage years isn't very pleasant. Especially from Uncle Rob.”

He brings up a hand to stroke my hair. “Yeah?”

I nod. “...I was Aunt Molly's sister's kid. She was the one who really pushed him to agree to adopt me because she didn't want to give up her dead sister's kid to the state. She didn't want kids any more than he did, but she couldn't let go of the last piece of her sister so easily. ...He tried to hide it, but I know he resented me for pushing into his life. Much more than she ever did. It wasn't so bad when I was a kid, but when I turned into a sullen teenager, things got worse.”

“I can imagine you weren't the kind of teenager who just locked herself in her room as soon as she got home from school and spent her free time listening to emo music.”

“Not at all. Diego was the so-called 'good kid' who hid his problems and never made trouble. Or he wouldn't have ever made trouble if it weren't for me. With Aunt Molly and Uncle Rob gone on business so much of the time, we ended up with the whole place to ourselves a lot. ...The other night, he and I were talking about the time during the summer I convinced him to come over and raid my uncle's liquor cabinet with me.”

“Dare I ask how old you were?”

I feel a smile playing around my mouth. “Fifteen.”

He whistles. “Wow. You were the wild one, weren't you.”

“...I guess I made Diego do all the things he was too afraid to do alone.” I feel my smile slipping. “...I think about that night, and I kinda wonder if he wouldn't have been better off without me...”

I feel Jake's arm tighten over my shoulder. “What happened that night that makes you say that?”

“We got completely shitfaced on Kahlua. When the hangovers hit the next morning, we huddled under the blankets in my room for two days, convinced we were going to die. Then a few days after that, Uncle Rob and Aunt Molly came home. And when Uncle Rob realized the Kahlua was missing a few days later...I...” I close my eyes, curling into him. “...Well, let's just say I wore pretty heavy concealer for a week or two.”

I feel him tense in my arms. His breath quivers slightly as he exhales. “...Aw, shit...”

“...That...probably makes it sound worse than it was...”

“He laid hands on you, that's bad enough,” he growls. “I'm guessing he and I ain't gonna get along.”

“He had never done it before. Never did again.”

“He never will again,” he says firmly. “...But...except for a nasty hangover, it doesn't sound like Diego suffered much for knowing you that night.”

“...No. I took the whole blame for the missing Kahlua. I ran to Diego that night and told him the bruise was because I swiped a twenty from Uncle Rob's wallet. ...I'd done it before, so he believed me.” I sigh. “...And...that night we got drunk was the night he came out to me. ...I suppose when I didn't exist, he didn't have anyone he could come out to...”

“Wanna know what I think?”

“What do you think?”

“I think you're the friend he always wished he had because that's the kind of friend he always needed. He made it as far as he did in another timeline because he's strong. But now, he didn't always have to be strong. He had someone there to protect him when he was bullied, someone he could be honest with. And when he did have to be strong, he was being strong for you. Because your bastard of an uncle beat up on you, or...someone broke your heart. ...Don't you think a hideous hangover at fifteen was worth the chance to come out to someone who would tell him there was nothing wrong with him?”

“...Yeah. Probably. ...It was everyone's need plus Vaanu's energy that first created me. I was born to be what all of you needed me to be.”

“And now all of us are gonna be what you need us to be. Shit, Princess, do you even have any idea what you mean to us? Not just me and Diego, but every one of us? Raj and Zahra and Aleister and all of them?”

“...If they love me half as much as I love all of them...” I swallow hard. I think of my dream, of Aleister turning me away so that I wouldn't see Jake die, that small act of genuine love and kindness in spite of his betrayal.

“They love you just as much as you love them, if not more. We're gonna take care of you, Princess. We're your family, and we're all gonna stand by you. Don't you doubt it.”

 

Diego

 

After blissfully making love, I fall asleep under the moonlight in Varyyn's arms, the warm tropical breeze caressing my bare, sweat-slick skin. In the arms of my one true love, knowing my best friend is safe with her husband within easy reach, I feel more contented than I think I have ever felt in my life.

The next day, I watch Allie, Sean, and Jake team up against Seraxa, Varyyn, and Taari in quuk'tanoi, and I remember the day the twelve of us first arrived on La Huerta, that first night at The Celestial. La Huerta felt like a paradise then. Today, it feels like one again.

Allie's team presents a strong challenge. Rusty though they may be, the three of them really are a dream team when it comes to anything competitive like this. They manage to score two points before the Vaanti team scores one. But then the tides start to turn. The Vaanti overpower them, and Taari himself scores the winning goal.

Nightfall finds us proudly watching as Seraxa presents her foster son and heir with his owl mask in an elegant ceremony. As the crowd cheers the Vaanti's newest, youngest warrior, Taari beams at them from behind the mask. I look at Varyyn beside me and notice his eyes are shining.

“You okay?”

“...He is still so young. It is difficult to imagine him going into battle.”

I lace my fingers with his. “There's not much to battle these days on La Huerta.” I lay my head on his shoulder and feel him squeeze my hand.

“Long may peace reign.”

“Amen.”

“...We have peace because of Alodia.” Varyyn raises his eyes skyward. “...My mind is still connected to hers.”

“It is?”

“Yes. She believes there is nothing significant in it. That it simply means we are who we are, each of us with a connection to Vaanu, and that our joining minds on the beach has not been undone.”

“Well...that all makes sense.”

He sighs, looking down again. “...She is troubled. Frightened. Confused.”

“Unfortunately, I'm not surprised,” I murmur. “I may not be mind-melded with her, but I know her. Besides, anyone would be troubled and confused in her situation.”

“You are right, of course.”

But his words stay with me. I find myself watching Allie for the rest of the night. When I finally sleep, my dreams are a bizzare collection of moments that all kind of lead back to the same conclusion: Allie needs my support. She's broken and bewildered, and she needs familiar faces beside her.

The following day is our last full day on La Huerta before we return to our lives. As we're finishing breakfast, I clear my throat.

“Hey, guys, I think we should talk about the logistics of getting everyone home now that we've got Allie back.”

“What do you mean?” Craig asks.

“Well, normally Jake flies us all back to London so Varyyn doesn't have to worry about security or anything like that. And I know you guys all fly home from there.”

“...Is that not going to work this time?”

“No,” Jake murmurs. “...Alodia may have an ID and passport somewhere out there, but we ain't gonna find it in time to get her a commercial flight back to the states from London. If we land in London first, I'm gonna have to fly her home myself. Which I could do...”

“The thing is...” I take a deep breath, covering Varyyn's hand with mine. “Varyyn, you know I love you and I never want to be without you. But I can't leave Allie right now. I know more about the world she's going to be transitioning back to than anyone else. Maybe even more than you yourself, Allie.”

She shrugs. “Probably. ...I wasn't going to say it, but I'm terrified of facing it without you.”

“I would not dream of asking you to separate right now,” Varyyn assures me. “I can survive without you for awhile.”

“The thing is...I don't know how long awhile is going to be. ...I'm kinda hoping we can find someplace safe enough that you can stay with me.”

“Of course if that is a possiblity, I would prefer it.”

Allie frowns thoughtfully. “I...might have an idea on that. Diego, do you know if my aunt and uncle still have the beach house?”

“As far as I know,” I reply, sighing a little. It's actually a little funny how quickly I've grown to consider this new timeline the real one, enough that I can roll my eyes at some of her family's more extravagent status symbols. “They didn't stop being obscenely wealthy when you disappeared.”

“Wait, your folks have a beach house?!” Raj exclaims. “In California?!”

Allie winces a little. “In Laguna Beach. It's a second home, if you can believe that.”

Michelle raises an eyebrow. “What exactly do they do?”

“Uncle Rob's a lawyer, Aunt Molly's a plastic surgeon. And they live in the Greater L.A. area, so guess who most of their clients are. They probably could have had a ten million dollar home in Beverly Hills, but they chose a more 'modest' million-dollar estate in Alessandro Heights so they could keep the beach house for entertaining. ...I've only seen it a few times. Most of their parties weren't exactly 'kid' parties, so I was left with Diego's family most of the time they were hosting until my fingers stopped being so sticky. But they did let us use it for both our eighteenth birthdays and our high school graduation parties.”

“...They were going to let us use it to celebrate our college graduation,” I murmur.

“Ohh, man, that would've been freaking sweet!” Craig sighs. “We would've been invited, right?”

Allie laughs. “Duh, Craig! Anyway, here's what I'm thinking now. I may be able to convince them that Jake and I need a place to ourselves. I'm guessing I can convince them to let us take over either the beach house or the place in Riverside. Then you and Varyyn can stay with us and we can all look after each other.” She frowns a little. “...Thing is, though, it might take awhile before they're ready to let me out of their sight. ...Especially given that I'm not sure how they'll react to Jake.”

“Hey, I can always find a place to rent,” I say quickly. “In case you've forgotten, I am a best-selling author now. I'm not really hurting for money.”

“I know. But if I can manage it...”

“Whether Varyyn and Diego end up at the beach house or an apartment, there's still gonna be some downtime before things get settled,” Jake points out.

“I can wait in London until then,” Varyyn says. “It is all right, really.”

“You may not have to, though. I got a thought. There's a little risk involved, but I think it may be work out.” He takes Allie's hand, squeezing it. “You've been a missing person for five years, Princess. Both Lundgren's trial and Rourke's were national news. As was the disappearance of one of his Selected. No matter how quiet we try to sneak you back in, we're gonna have to deal with the police at some point. ...My sister came across your case file and was willing to keep it quiet. ...I say we ask her help. She may be able to hide Varyyn until we can get him and Diego someplace safe.”

A hush settles over the table. I see Allie's chest start to rise and fall a little faster. “Jake...I...don't take this the wrong way, but...can we trust her? I mean, I'm sure she's a good sister and a good cop, but...with the Vaanti? With my origins?”

“I think we can. We can bring Mike in to back us up, too. Rebecca's a responsible cop, but she ain't so by-the-book that she won't bend the rules if there's a good reason to bend 'em. And I can't think of any way harrassing the Vaanti is gonna relate to your case once she knows the facts.”

“But will she believe them?”

“With our very own Papa Smurf in front of her as evidence? I know my sister, Alodia. She's a healthy skeptic, but she's also got an open mind. She's just the right mix of wary and receptive. Besides,” he raises her hand to his mouth and kisses it. “You know I wouldn't suggest it if I thought for a second it would put you or the Vaanti in any real danger. Don't you?”

She nods, slowly but without hesitation. Jake looks at me. “What about you, Short Stuff? You've had the chance to get to know Rebecca a little. You in?”

I hesitate just a little. “It isn't that I don't trust her...but I am inclined to be cautious to the point of overprotectiveness with Varyyn. It's one thing to put him on the street in human clothes and let people think he's going to a costume convention, but it's another to bring in someone outside our family and say, 'Hey, he's part of a race of super-evolved humans who got that way when their ancestors drank the sap from an alien tree'.”

“Rebecca is family,” Jake says firmly.

“You know what I meant. ...Thing is, Jake, I trust you. So...if you can honestly tell me you'd be comfortable telling Rebecca that her sister-in-law is actually the human daughter of a crystal alien that got trapped on earth and that she's been retconned into existence after giving herself up to save the world from destruction...then I'm in.”

“I believe she can be trusted with everything,” Jake answers without hesitation. “She's the only person outside of the La Huerta sphere that I would trust.”

His confidence doesn't entirely erase my doubts, but I don't think anything ever could. I trust his love for Allie enough to know that if he had the slightest doubt, he wouldn't be suggesting this. My biggest fear is that he'll discover his trust is misplaced, but I can't deny that he knows his sister better than I do.

“...All right. So, we'll see if Varyyn can stay with your sister until either I find an apartment or Allie gets run of the beach house, or the house in Riverside.”

“Oh, please say you'll angle for the beach house,” Raj says with a grin. “Do you realize how many awesome parties we can have there? Hell, we could throw a New Years' Eve party that would top Elysian Lodge! Fireworks and everything!”

Allie snorts. “Don't get ahead of yourself, Raj. I have to get the beach house first.”

“If the plan is for Varyyn to stay in Los Angeles,” Aleister remarks, “perhaps we should alter our flight plan to land there instead. Rourke International can certainly reimburse everyone the cost of altering your tickets when we arrive.”

“I just have one problem with that plan,” Michelle says. “I have no doubt that once Alodia is officially a found person, the police and her family will have doctors all over her, testing her DNA and making sure she's healthy. If being a time anomaly has done anything strange with her body, wouldn't it be safer if I found out first? I had been thinking that I could sneak her into my hospital under an assumed name to have them run blood tests and scans.”

“...Wouldn't that leave a paper trail?” Jake asks uncertainly.

“I was hoping Zahra could help with some of that.”

“Tell me what you need, I'll see what I can do.”

Michelle nods. “There are also a few equipment techs I can probably bribe with Condors tickets to give the results to me directly and not put them in the system. Not to mention interns who will need to be bribed to let me handle the procedures...” She looks hopefully at Sean, who grins.

“In the name of sneaking Alodia back into the world, I'll pull every string I can get my hands on.”

“So, should we plan on landing in Northbridge now?”

“You'll have your choice of places to crash,” Quinn says cheerfully. “Alodia and Jake can stay with me and Michelle, and Varyyn and Diego can stay with Craig and Zahra.”

“Wait, you and Michelle are living together?” Allie repeats. “What about Sean?”

“I mostly stay with them. But my mom's place has an extra room for me, and I'm kinda paying her rent. Perks of a pro athlete's salary.”

“I see the sense in your plan, Maybelline,” Jake concedes. “Can Rourke International spare the private plane for a second flight from Northbridge to L.A.?”

“Of course.”

“Or! Better idea!” Raj exclaims. “I rent us a van, and we make a Catalyst Road Trip of it!”

“As...enjoyable as that sounds,” Aleister says, trying and failing to hold back a smile, “Grace has a show coming up in London that she has to prepare for. Besides, the longer we take getting Alodia to Los Angeles, the more likely it is she or Varyyn will be seen by someone we don't want to see them.”

“Aww, that's a good point. Why did you have to make a good point?”

“My apologies.”

“Are you still willing to let some of us come with you, Alodia?”

“Well...everything will be have to be managed carefully, especially when it comes to introducing everyone to my family. But I am happy to have any of you around that want to be there and can spare the time.”

“I can come along,” Estela remarks. “Tio won't mind if I take an extra week or two to get back. In fact, he'll probably be thrilled by the idea of me spending some time in Los Angeles.”

“I'll go, too,” Quinn declares.

“You know I'm in!” Raj says cheerfully.

“I can probably swing a few extra days off,” Craig adds. “How about you, Z?”

Zahra grins, jerking her head at Aleister. “Ask my boss.”

“Well, I suppose I can spare you,” Aleister mock-sighs.

“I wish I could come,” Grace sighs. “But like Aleister says, I have to prepare for a show.”

“...Okay. So, I guess we have a plan now.” Quite suddenly, I find myself feeling lighter. I didn't even realize how nervous this was making me until now.

“I feel like this brilliant plan needs a name,” Craig remarks. “A cool code name like Operation...something...”

“Operation Andromeda?” Allie suggests wryly.

“I believe Operation Perseus might be more appropriate,” Aleister replies thoughtfully.

“What's a Perseus?” Craig asks.

“A character in Greek Mythology. A son of Zeus, and the eventual consort of Princess Andromeda. It was Perseus who saved Andromeda from being sacrificed to the sea monster Cetus.”

“Wait, sacrificed to Cetus?”

Aleister sighs, rolling his eyes. “Yes, Craig. Cetus was sent by the god of the sea to punish Andromeda's mother for boasting that her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs. When Cetus continued to terrorize the kingdom, Andromeda's father decided the only way to stop it was to sacrifice Andromeda. So he chained her naked to a rock and left her to die.”

“Dude!”

“But, Perseus eventually rescued her, using the severed head of Medusa to defeat Cetus.”

“That's...kinda twisted, all things considered,” Zahra remarks. “Especially Rourke's obsession with mythology.”

“...Rourke didn't name Cetus,” Allie points out. “He didn't name me Andromeda, either. That was the Endless. ...I've been trying to figure that one out for a long time.”

“Well, no need to figure it out anymore,” Jake declares, winding an arm around her shoulder and pulling her close. “Cetus is dead, my Princess Andromeda.”

“So, Jake is Perseus now?”

“I think you're all collectively Perseus,” Allie declares firmly. “If my Cetus was actually Vaanu, then all of you are Perseus, because all of you are helping me get my life back.”

“Frankly, I think if we start searching for mythological parallels to everything that happened on La Huerta,” Estela remarks, “we are all going to end up with massive headaches.”

“Agreed,” Quinn says cheerfully. “We have one more day on La Huerta before Operation Perseus or whatever it is gets underway. Let's enjoy ourselves!”

 

 

Chapter Text

Craig

Zahra spends most of the flight to Northbridge on her laptop, working on getting Alodia the paperwork she needs to get in and out of the hospital undetected. Or, undetected as herself anyway. Michelle hovers over Zahra's shoulder, making sure everything's in order. Well, that's what she thinks she's doing, but I can tell that it's starting to bug Zahra.

“Hey, Meech, why don't you sit down and leave her alone for awhile. You can check it all over when she's done.”

“Craig, if she misses something--”

“You'll find it when she's done. She's not gonna send it or print it or whatever without you greenlighting it.”

Michelle sighs and flops down in her seat. After a moment, she stands up in place and folds her arms on the back of the seat in front of her. She looks down at Alodia, who is curled up across the two seats in front of her, dozing. Sean stands up beside Michelle, slipping his arm around her waist.

“You okay, babe?”

“Yeah...yeah, I'm okay. Just...irrationally nervous that they're going to discover that she doesn't have a liver or something...”

“Wouldn't that have caused her to die of alcohol poisoning after one cocktail?”

“Well, no...but I guess the fact that she isn't either dead or still drunk means something metabolized those cocktails. No jaundice, either...”

“And you said she has a pulse, and she appears to be breathing.”

“Yeah, I know. But I'm going to be a little nervous until everything checks out okay.”

I wander over to kneel next to the seats where Alodia's sleeping. “You didn't find anything funny when you checked her out before, right? No flashing lights inside her ears?” I pretend to look inside the ear that's turned toward us. Suddenly, Alodia's eyes fly open, and she sits up with a gasp. I just barely manage to avoid getting hit in the face with her head. I jump back in surprise, and so do Sean and Michelle.

“Woah, hey!” Sean puts a hand on her shoulder. “You okay there?”

She looks around at the three of us suspiciously, then looks past us at the rest of the group, scattered throughout the cabin of Rourke International's private jet.

“...What day is it, and where are we going?”

“It's the eighth of June, 2023. We're flying to Northbridge from La Huerta.”

She sighs, settling back into her seat. “Thank god. I was having one of those dream-within-a-dreams, and for a moment I thought I trapped in the time loop again.”

I laugh. “Nope. No funny lightning.”

She gives me a half-smile and stands up. “I think I'm gonna go keep the pilot company.”

“Have fun.”

“But not too much fun,” Zahra adds as Alodia walks past her up toward the cockpit. “If I hear sex noises up there, I'm jumping out of the plane!”

* * *

We land at a small Northbridge airport about an hour later, where Aleister has arranged to have a limo waiting for us. We go straight to the car, shielding Varyyn from any prying eyes.

“Won't the driver ask questions?” Alodia asks.

“Not likely. He'll already be in the car waiting for us. We can keep Varyyn mostly under his threshold of perception while we climb in. And with the tinted windows, we won't draw much attention from the outside world, either.”

“But what about when we get out?”

“Allie, for the most part, Varyyn's presence doesn't raise any eyebrows, no matter where we are. Most people assume he's wearing a costume, and they're usually too busy with their own lives to ask any more questions.”

“The driver is not going to be particularly concerned who he is driving about as long as he is paid what he was promised. And if he goes home and tells his spouse he drove a blue man to an apartment in Northbridge, what of it? She'll probably assume he's talking about a member of the performance troupe.”

Alodia has to laugh at that. “Fair enough.”

“Still pays to be careful, though,” Diego concedes. “Which is why we only ever fly Rourke International.”

“Plus, you get to ride in a sweet limo,” I point out. “Always take an excuse to ride in a sweet limo.”

We all pile in and the driver takes us to Michelle and Quinn's apartment. Reggie needs a diaper change by the time we arrive, so Aleister immediately scoots into Michelle's bedroom to take care of that.

“Alodia and Jake, you guys can have my room while you're here. ...Which happens to be the room Aleister just took the baby into, but never mind. I'll make sure it airs out. And Sean and I can crash at his mom's place for a few nights. Zahra, do you think you can have the paperwork ready for me to look over tonight?”

“Soon as I can get to the office, I'm your girl.”

As soon as Reggie's diaper is changed, Aleister takes Michelle and Zahra and the three of them head out again to Rourke International's Northbridge office. A few hours later, they come back with a lumpy manilla envelope.

“Okay, here's the scoop,” Zahra says, handing the envelope to Alodia. “You're now Taylor Murphy, a new hire in the research department at Rourke International. Your ID is in here, as are a list of tests and scans that the company requires you to have before you begin your work. Don't worry. The bill will be covered. There's a note on where to send it because you haven't been set up on the company insurance policy yet.”

“She wanted to give them a fake address,” Michelle says, scowling. “I had to convince her not to cheat a hardworking hospital out of the money it takes to keep it going.”

“...Taylor Murphy?” Alodia repeats, smirking. Hearing his name, Murphy tips his head curiously.

“Mrr?”

Alodia takes out the papers, looking them over. “You really think they'll buy that Rourke International wants me to get a full-body MRI?”

“Rourke is famously insane. I think they'll buy that his children inherited some of his paranoia. In any case, if that's what you require for your job, they're not going to refuse you. It's just an MRI. Anyway, I should sleep. I have to be up pretty early for my shift. Quinn and Zahra are going to escort you to the hospital, since Quinn knows where it is, and we might need Zahra on hand for...well.”

“Hacking. Just say it.”

“I can drop you guys off on my way to work if you want,” I suggest. “Save you cab fare.”

“What about getting home?” Diego asks.

“She might well be there long enough that Craig would be able to pick her up,” Quinn replies. “Believe me, I know how long these tests can take.”

“Oh, great,” Alodia sighs. Jake puts an arm around her, kissing the top of her head. “I'll be with you the whole time, Princess. I won't leave your side for a second if you don't want me to.”

“Ditto,” Diego adds.

“I'd be grateful. I'll be honest, I'm not actually...good...at doctors...”

Everyone except Diego looks at her in surprise. “Seriously?” I ask. “Miss Badass Crystal Alien Savior of the World is scared of needles?”

“Jesus, Craig, you don't have to laugh at her!” Zahra scolds.

“I'm not laughing!” I protest. “I hate 'em, too!”

“It's not really the needles,” Alodia explains. “I mean, needles are creepy and they suck, but...it's the whole experience that I've never been good at.”

“You seemed mostly okay when I examined you a week ago,” Michelle says.

“Because you are you,” Alodia replies. “And I still flinched. ...Look, I haven't actually had a meltdown in a doctor's office since I was ten. I can handle it. I'd just...rather not have to handle it alone. Especially if it's someone other than Michelle doing the poking and prodding.”

“You won't have to,” Quinn says. “Promise. Someone will be with you every second.”

“That's for the best, anyway,” Michelle agrees. “At least on Catalyst should be with you at all times until the conclusion of Operation Perseus.”

“...Are we seriously calling it that?”

“I'm afraid we're stuck with it now. You want to blame someone, blame Aleister.”

Aleister sighs, bouncing Reggie in his arms. “I regret ever suggesting the name.”

* * *

We get to the hospital clinic way too early for me. Especially because Zahra drank all the coffee last night while the rest of us were sleeping.

“Relax, loser boy. There's a cafeteria at the hospital.”

“Yeah, full of hospital coffee,” I mutter.

“I wish I could tell you it's not so bad,” Quinn sighs, “but I would be lying. Whenever I was in the hospital as I kid, I remember the one thing my parents agreed on was that the coffee was disgusting.”

“See, Z?”

Zahra rolls her eyes. “Fine. You want me to buy you a Starbucks?”

“No, it's fine, just pay for my cup of disgusting hospital coffee. You can buy the good stuff on the way home.”

I park the car in the parking garage, and everyone piles out of the car. Me, Zahra, Quinn, Jake, Diego, and Alodia.

“Allie, you think anyone's gonna be curious about the size of your entourage?”

“Why should they be? Craig's just here for coffee, Zahra's going to be...wherever Michelle needs her...so it's just Jake, who is my husband, and you and Quinn can be my brother and sister.”

Zahra snorts. “Right, because the Mexican kid and the tiny blonde can pass so well for siblings.”

“Okay, A.) at twenty-seven, I think you can stop calling Diego a kid. And B.) we can be foster siblings, or adopted. Those do exist.”

“Okay, so what about the problem of Quinn?” Jake asks, smirking. “I may not have mentioned it, but I know you two have a little history involving things you don't do with your sister.”

Alodia pokes him. “You spend a lot of time thinking of my salacious escapades with Quinn?”

“Oh, hush.”

Quinn snorts, hiding a smile behind her hand. We step in through the automatic doors. Quinn directs me and Zahra to the cafeteria, then joins the others to check Alodia in. We run into Michelle on the way.

“Oh, good. You're here. Is she in?”

“Getting checked in now,” Zahra answers. “We're getting coffee.”

“Great. Meet me when you're done. I gotta run.”

I watch her rush off. “...Hey, Meech...” I mumble. “I was here, too.”

Zahra laughs. “Calm down. She's an intern. In this place, she basically exists to be everyone's bitch. Let's get you caffeinated.”

She buys me a coffee. Looking at my phone, I see that I can spare a few minutes to sit down and drink it, and it's always nice when I can get a couple minutes with Z, especially on a day like today when we've got other things on our minds. We sit down at a table by the window, and I start pouring sugar into my coffee.

“So,” I say. “We made it off the island and Alodia's still here. I think that's a pretty good sign, don't you?”

“I admit I'm feeling a little more confident. It's pretty amazing what having an actual plan can do for your mood.”

I grin and reach across the table to take her hand while I take a sip of coffee. It's a little too hot, and four sugar packets doesn't do much to improve the flavor. But at least it's not decaf. That's when I happen to look over Zahra's shoulder at the TV screen mounted on the wall in the corner. A news program flickers over the screen. Closed captions scroll across the bottom, white letters on black bars over an image of a man with gleaming metal skin speaking to a newscaster on the street. He smiles charmingly into the camera.

“What's up, Northbridge! I'm Talos, the Man of Bronze, but I also answer to 'my hero'. Your choice. You can sleep tight from now on, 'cause I'm officially on the job. No matter where, no matter when, I'll keep you safe. That's a promise.”

“Woah! Z, are you seeing this?”

Zahra has already turned around to frown at the screen. “...Yeah...what the hell?”

“...Is...that some movie I've never heard of?”

“I...don't think so.” The image cuts back to the news studio.

“In other news, repairs to Prescott Industries continue on schedule after the recent robbery and the failure of Prescott's so-called Prism Gate. Silas Prescott has refused to comment on whether the Prism Gate project will resume, but rumors are circulating regarding his plans to redevelop the Bayside Neighborhood...”

The news segment continues far too long to be part of a movie. Zahra turns back to me, frowning.

“Do you think it had anything to do with...?”

“I dunno. ...The Island's Heart gave Quinn some pretty crazy powers.”

“Yeah, but it never turned her into a literal frickin' bronze god.” Zahra drums her fingers nervously on the table. “I'm gonna text everyone. It might be unrelated to anything, but we can't afford to ignore it. At the very least, Aleister and Estela can't ignore anything having anything to do with Prescott Industries if they don't want the company to suffer.”

I stand and go to look over her shoulder while she taps out a group text message: If NE1 did not catch the news, check it out ASAP! Superheroes in Northbridge + Silas Prescott!!!

I feel my phone buzz in my pocket, but I ignore it, knowing it's the same text I just read over her shoulder. But about a minute later, both her phone and mine buzz. There's a text from Jake: We saw. A says something in this city feels off.

Z texts back: What kind of off?

When he doesn't text back right away, my eyes wander to the time on the top of her screen. “Crap...Z, I gotta get to work.”

“Yeah. Go on, Player Two. Kiss first.” She taps her lips expectantly, and I bend down to kiss her. She sneaks her hand around to pinch my ass. “Get outta here. Go make that money, honey.”

“Text if you get done early here so I know not to pick you up.”

“Will do.”

As I'm walking to my car, I feel my phone buzz again. Another text from Jake in the group chat: A just mind-talked to V. V feels it too. They both def think something in this city feels like LH. Probs the crystal and the superheroes are related.

Through the short drive to my office, my phone keeps buzzing. I read the rest of the texts as I'm in the elevator.

Raj: Should we be worried?

Diego: Maybe.

Aleister: Grace and I are about to board a charter flight to London. BTW Jake, the plane is ready for you whenever you leave for LA.

Jake: Thnx.

Aleister: Anyway, Estela and Zahra, can you be at the Northbridge office in about eight hours?

Estela: I will be there.

Zahra: Sure, if A's tests are done and M doesn't need me to stick around.

“Hey, Craig!” I look up to see our team leader, Kristy, leaning against the open elevator door with a grin. “You maybe wanna step out of the elevator so other people can use it?”

“Oh...heh...sorry.” I step out, avoiding her eyes. She playfully pushes at my head.

“Where's your brain at, dude? Did you leave it in the Caribbean?”

“Yeah, kind of. I think it got a later flight than I did. Should be here any minute.”

“It better be. We're kinda counting on it to help us plot out this new game, since it was mostly your idea.”

“Right, right. I'm here. I'm on it.”

I reluctantly turn off my phone and stick it in my pocket. I'll check it again on my break. But for now, the Catalysts are gonna have to manage without me.

 

Jake

 

I guess Alodia wasn't kidding about not liking medical nonsense. She's stoic for the most part, but she shrinks a little every time an unfamiliar nurse or intern approaches her. She endures the physical quietly, which is almost worse to watch than if she were freaking out or fighting. I'm used to her getting feisty when she's facing something she's afraid of. Honestly, if she would just get grumpy or complain a little, I'd be less unsettled than I am seeing her all quiet and scared like this. I can tell it's unsettling Diego a little too, because he keeps making dumb jokes like he does when he's stressed. She makes a half-hearted attempt at bantering back, but her heart's not in it.

After the initial physical and the peeing in a cup and all that, they leave her alone for a while. At first, she sits quietly on the edge of the table, but I guess being left alone again with me and Diego and Quinn relaxes her a little bit, because she gets up and starts to pace, sighing with irritation.

“Figures they won't just get everything over with and let me go,” she grumbles. “Has to be a whole long thing...”

“That's the way hospitals work,” Quinn sighs, offering her a sympathetic smile.

“I always knew you were a tough cookie,” Alodia replies with appreciation in her voice. “But to think of you going through this crap as a matter of routine...you really are the bravest of us.”

Quinn shakes her head. “I was brave because I had to be. I don't really have to be anymore thanks to you.”

“That courage was learned, but it hasn't been unlearned. That I can promise you. Now you can put it toward living your own life, and helping other people who are going through this crap as a matter of routine.” She pauses and smiles. “...You know I'm really proud of you, Quinn. I'm really proud of all of you.”

I feel a twinge at that. I can't really think of anything I've done in the last five years that she could actually be proud of. Yeah, I guess I got mine and Mike's names cleared and Lundgren put behind bars, and that's something that does some good in the world. But all I've really done since then is pine for her.

I stand up and snare her in mid-pace, pulling her into my arms. She squeaks a little, but she holds me back.

“What's this?”

“Just reminding myself that you're real. You're really here.”

“If I'm not, you're having a really weird dream.”

I laugh, relieved that she seems to have calmed down a little. Then the door opens and I feel her flinch again, preparing to shrink into herself. She relaxes just a little when she sees Michelle pushing a small tray of medical supplies.

“Thank god it's you,” Alodia sighs.

“I am so sorry I couldn't get here sooner. I ended up getting roped into helping to restrain a surprisingly strong three-year-old who needed stitches. Lay down on the table for me, Alodia, I'll get the blood draw over with.”

“Is the kid okay?” Diego asks as Alodia gets back on the table and settles back. I pull a chair up beside her and take her free hand.

“He's fine,” Michelle assures him as she ties the tourniquet around Alodia's upper arm. “Cut his head when he hit it on the corner of a coffee table rough-housing with his brother. Normal kid stuff.”

I can't help chuckling. “I remember when I was five and Rebecca pushed me off the swing. Got a faceful of dirt and a chipped tooth for it. Lucky it was a baby tooth.”

“I still have the scars from the time I broke my arm when I was seven.” Diego turns his arm to show off a series of small, wrinkled marks on his right elbow. Michelle squints at them.

“Surgical pin scars?”

“Yup,” he says almost proudly. “I was walking down the stairs with my back against the banister, and I somehow managed to roll over it. My arm got caught and...”

I grimace. “Ohh, gross.”

“It was,” Alodia confirms. I feel her grip tighten a little as the needle slips into her vein, but her gaze has started to get distant as she looks up at the ceiling. “...That was Memorial Day weekend, I think. I'd been left with you and your family as usual, and your parents were throwing a party with your neighbors. We'd both been stuffing ourselves with brownies, running around with the neighbors' kids. ...I remember the older girl who always wanted to play house, and the boy I think she had a crush on, who she always roped into being the dad. She was the one who ran to get your parents after you fell. ...I remember how you screamed...the little white bone poking through the skin...your dad rode in the ambulance with you. Your mom had to stay with me until she was sure someone would be able to look after me until my aunt and uncle got home. She was so calm while she was explaining what happened, but once the ambulance drove off, she sat down on the stairs and started gasping and crying, and that made me start crying. I remember her clutching me and saying over and over, 'He'll be all right, mija. The doctors will fix him up. He'll be all right, mija...' ...And I'm doing it again, aren't I?”

“What, reminiscing?”

Her mouth twists a little. “...Did that happen in the other timeline? Where I didn't exist? You breaking your arm?”

“Yeah. ...Except you didn't come visit me in the hospital and bring me that teddy bear with the doctor's coat and the stethescope.”

“That was kind of a dumb gift, wasn't it.”

Diego laughs. “No, it was cute. Besides, I was so miserable, I was just glad they let you see me at all. You got to be the first to sign my cast.”

“They wouldn't let me see you for a few days. They told me it was because you had a fever.”

“A post-op fever, I'm guessing,” Michelle says. “From the surgery to place the pins.”

“Yeah. ...I started school that year with most of my arm in a cast. I remember it being really itchy. And though I don't really remember it hurting when I actually broke my arm, getting the pins out was awful. And for months afterward, I couldn't straighten my arm all the way because the muscles were so atrophied.”

“Well, I'm done here,” Michelle remarks, pressing a cotton ball to Alodia's inner elbow and taping it down. “The good news is, you definitely have blood. I took about a pint out of you, so lie still for a moment.”

“I'd laugh, but last night I actually dreamt of coming in here and finding out I didn't have human blood...”

“Well, we'll find out if it's human soon enough. I gotta get these samples to the lab. ...I'll try to be the one to take you for your MRI as soon as they're ready for you, okay?”

“I'd appreciate that, if you can swing it.” Michelle leaves with the samples, and Alodia settles back onto the table.

“How do you feel?” Quinn asks, coming to stand at her other shoulder. “If you feel lightheaded at all, you should turn around and lie with your feet against the headrest so that they angle upward.”

“I think I'm okay, but I'll keep that in mind.”

“You know, as awful as Diego's broken arm story sounds, I almost envy it. And Jake's chipped tooth, and the kid getting stitches because he hit his head rough-housing...”

“You mean normal kid stuff?” I ask sympathetically. “Yeah, you didn't have much opportunity to fall down stairs or get pushed off swings, did you?”

She shakes her head. “...Sometimes...I still can't believe the Rotterdam's is really gone. Sometimes I find myself asking, 'Where did it go?'”

“That is a damned good question,” Alodia murmurs. “One that I don't really have the answer to. I mean, I would guess the Island's Heart sort of...rewrote your DNA...?”

“...I wonder if that Prism Gate crystal did the same thing to that Talos guy?” Diego muses.

“It's possible,” I concede. “I mean, even after everything, how much do any of us really know about those crystals?”

“I have more knowledge of them than any of you...but most of it seems to be...buried. Or locked behind a wall.” Alodia sighs, rubbing her forehead. “I think I'll be glad to get back to Riverside. The energy in this city is making me feel...weird.”

I bring her hand to my mouth to kiss it. “It's not gonna be long now, Princess. A few days for the test results, and we'll be on our way. Just think of this: by this time next week, you'll be properly home.”

 

Estela

 

Even though it's dark outside by the time I settle myself in my office at Rourke International's Northbridge office, I still draw the curtains and keep the overhead lights off, sticking with a small desk lamp to illuminate my keyboard. Our Northbridge office is small compared to our other buildings. In fact, it's just one suite in larger complex, but that is by design. Silas Prescott has unofficially run this city for decades. As his rival, Rourke was eager to keep an eye on him, but he was also playing a long game, not letting himself be perceived as a threat before he could back it up on Prescott's own turf.

In the eerie half-light of my desk lamp and my computer screen, I log into my account, pulling up the security program feed and opening a secure chat with Aleister, also logged on in London. A video chat request pops up on the screen and I answer. My brother's face flickers on to the screen. He sits behind his desk, his own office lit as dimly as mine. I frown a little.

“I can't tell if those are circles under your eyes or just a trick of the light,” I remark.

“It is one o'clock in the morning here,” he replies. “I did my best to sleep on the plane, but a teething baby with his ears blocked up did not help matters.”

I feel a smile playing around my mouth. “You could let me and Zahra take care of this.”

“No, no. I don't want to hear about it second-hand if I don't have to. Besides. ...I've got an old friend to help us.” He holds a familiar object up to the screen, a small spherical drone.

“Iris?”

“Zahra may need some help hacking into Prescott Industries, especially if she is to do so without leaving digital fingerprints. Not that I don't have the utmost faith in Zahra, but this is extremely delicate business.” He frowns. “Where is Zahra, anyway?”

“On her way. They only just got Alodia back from the hospital an hour ago.”

“Did everything go well there?”

“Well, there was nothing to make the doctors think she was anything other than human. I suppose we won't know for a few days if the tests show anything else amiss like anemia or anything like that.”

Before he can reply, a notification pops up on my screen. Zahra's badge has been scanned at the entrance.

“She's here,” I say needlessly. He'll have gotten the same notification. “She should just be a few minutes.” Not long after that, Zahra walks into the office.

“The gang all here?”

“Aleister has logged on. And he has Iris' drone with him.”

“Sweet.”

“So, what do we know so far?” Aleister asks.

“From what I can tell, four superhumans have appeared in the city,” I inform him. “Two seem to be taking the criminal route, one with stone skin, and one who calls himself the Man on Fire. Guess what his power is. On the other side, we have Talos, the Man of Bronze, and one who calls herself Dragonness.”

Aleister frowns. “That name sounds familiar. ...Wasn't that the name of a comic book super villain?”

“I dunno, you'll have to ask Diego about that,” Zahra mutters. “If so, then this Dragonness is either a nerd, or she was just searching for something that sounded cool.”

“Well, anyway, whether criminals or vigilantes, it seems they aren't going to find a welcome in Northbridge. Meiko Katsaros, the District Attorney, has publically denounced their actions.”

“Has anyone made the connection to the crystal yet?”

“Not that they've said publically,” Aleister sighs. “What we're looking for here, though, is anything you can find on the Prism Gate project.”

“Right. Well, fire up your mom, Al. Let's get on this.”

Aleister pushes a button on the drone, and it rises slowly off the desk. Iris flickers to life beside Aleister. She smiles warmly.

“Hello, my sweet boy. It has been awhile.”

“I apologize, Mother. I haven't meant to ignore you.”

“How is my grandson? And his beautiful mother?”

“Both well. But, Mother, I'm afraid I haven't much time to catch up at the moment. We need your help.” He gestures at his screen, and the drone turns its eye toward it. Iris's translucent face flickers with emotion when she sees me, just as it always does. I am the daughter of the woman who stole her husband's affections. The child he tried to replace her son with, in spite of the fact that he had never known me. ...But I love her son as my brother.

“Estela. Hello.”

“Hello, Iris.”

“Yo, Iris,” Zahra adds. “Good to see you.”

“Ahh, Zahra. ...What is this about?”

Between us, we explain about Alodia's mysterious return, our suspicions that it relates to the Prism Gate, and the appearance of superhumans in Northbridge.

“So, basically, we're hacking into Prescott Industries system to see what he's not sharing with the public.”

“...I remember Silas Prescott,” Iris says softly. “I remember his wife, Helena. She was my friend...”

“I...am sorry if this causes you discomfort, Mother. ...But I fear I must ask for your help. We have made it our mission to protect the Vaanti. And now with Alodia returned, we must protect her, too.”

“Of course I will help, Aleister. There is little harm that could come to Helena now, considering that she has been dead for some time.”

“Perfect,” Zahra says. “Now can we get on this so I can go home and get some sleep?”

“Of course. Have at it.” I get up, allowing Zahra to take my seat. She begins to type furiously, images and lines of code flickering rapidly across the screen.

“Connecting...” Iris murmurs.

“All right,” Zahra mutters. “I got a door. Iris, cover me. I'm goin' in.”

For a long while, there is silence, except for the clacking of the keyboard. Neither Aleister or I dare to say anything that might interrupt, but I find myself growing restless. I walk the floor, nibbling at a hangnail on my thumb until it starts to throb.

“Okay, Estela, I'm gonna need you to stop pacing unless you want me to lose my shit here. I found some stuff that might interest you.” I immediately snap to attention, rushing over to peer over her shoulder. “There are a bunch of files here on the Prism Gate Project. They're not labled that way and they're encrypted as hell, but I managed to get a peek inside one of them. Iris, can I download them to you to unscramble later?”

“You may, Zahra.”

“Great thanks. Don't go anywhere just yet, though. There's some more interesting stuff in here.”

“Such as?” Aleister prompts.

“...Email,” Iris chirps, “from: Silas Prescott. To: Employee #24601. Subject: URGENT! Priority: HIGH Message follows: Prism crystal stolen at gala! Set all available resources to recover it ASAP! THIS MUST BE KEPT OUT OF THE MEDIA!”

“Well, crap,” I mutter. “A possible time crystal is loose in Northbridge. That bodes well.”

“Hang on, there's still some more stuff here...Hello, what's this?” Zahra's tapping and clicking grow faster in her excitement. “Jackpot!”

“What? What is it?”

“Old security video feed from twenty-five years ago. Right about the time Prescott says he acquired the crystal. I'm setting it to download.” A video player program pops up on the screen. “Aleister, you seeing this?”

“I can see it,” he confirms. “...Can we play it?”

“It's not fully downloaded yet, but what has been is playable.” She clicks on the green triangle, turning up the volume.

Silas Prescott paces excitedly in a lab while a pretty young woman with coffee-colored skin and her black hair in braids examines a time crystal under a microscope.

“Where did you say you found this again?”

“I didn't find it. It was Helena. We spent our second honeymoon exploring the island of La Huerta, helping my old friend Everett survey the site for his new hotel. I was picturing a nice, relaxing vacation, but you know Helena. She jumps at just about any opportunity to muck around in old ruins, caves, that sort of thing.”

“Well, what do you expect, marrying an archaeologist?”

“That's exactly what she said. So naturally, we ended up exploring a system of underground caver--”

The video abruptly freezes, a white circle spinning in the center of the screen as it buffers. Zahra abruptly goes rigid.

“Shit! Shitshitshitshitshitshitshit!”

“What? What is it?!”

Her fingers start to dance across the keyboard. “Someone's pushing back, trying to dig me out! Iris, scramble 'em! Scramble 'em!”

“Scrambling...”

Several tense, silent moments pass. Finally, Zahra snaps, “Okay, Iris, cut 'em off! Sorry, Al, I have to go dark for a sec.” She enters a command, and the computer shuts off, leaving us with only the lamplight. She leans back in the chair, her breath shaking.

“...Did you shake them?”

“I think so. Someone sure was at the office late. Had to delete the video feed, but at least Iris has the files, and she's never failed at wiping my fingerprints before.”

I sigh, rubbing my hands over my face. “Well...now we know a few things for certain: that is a time crystal from La Huerta. And it is loose in the city of Northbridge.”

 

Chapter Text

Jake

Within a few days, Alodia's tests have all come back normal, and we're given the all-clear to fly to LA. Varyyn, Diego, Raj, Quinn, and Estela come with us. In light of what was discovered during their late-night hacking party, Zahra opts to stay in Northbridge, which of course leads Craig to stay behind, too. It's probably for the best, actually. As much as I know Alodia wants everyone with her, I'll feel more comfortable the fewer people are around when we bring Rebecca into the circle.

Mike is waiting at the airport when we land, with a rented van at the ready. I called him before we left Northbridge, explaining the situation. He agreed to help without a moment's hesitation, proving once again that even when we've been out of sync like we have lately, he has my back. We greet each other with a tight embrace on the tarmac.

“How you doing, kid?”

“I'm okay, Grandpa. It's good to see you.” He pulls back slightly too look over my shoulder at Alodia, lingering shyly beside Diego. “So it is true. You've come back to us.”

She nods, smiling. “...So have you.”

“I understand I have you to thank for that.”

“I'm glad I pulled it off. But...I think we ought to save the catching up until we're a bit less exposed.”

“Right. Of course. I got motel rooms booked for us, not far off the highway.”

* * *

We get settled into our rooms and order takeout from a Chinese place just behind the motel to eat while we wait for Rebecca. I made sure to emphasize the urgency of the situation, and she promised to meet us as soon as she got off duty, which still gives us a few hours of waiting. Mike watches Alodia through his good eye. He generally wears a patch over the bionic one when he's out in public, and for some reason he hasn't taken it off yet.

“So...where have you actually been for the last five years?”

“If I could answer that question, I would. Believe me. But I only have the vaguest idea.”

“...You know, Grandpa here took it really hard when he lost you. Hasn't gotten over you in all this time.”

I see her jaw tighten. She focuses on the chicken lo mein in the carton she's holding, stabbing at it with her chopsticks. “Yes,” she says flatly. “I had heard this.”

“Hey, Mike...” I put a hand on his arm. “Ease off her, buddy. It's okay.”

“No, Jake, don't stop him.” Alodia drops her chopsticks into the carton and plunks it down on the table. “If Mike is genuinely angry at me, if he genuinely thinks that I should have chosen to let the world burn in one hell or another in order not to leave you...if he genuinely doesn't realize that leaving you so soon after you'd watched him die a second time shattered my heart into so many pieces that Vaanu itself pitied me, or that I gained absolutely nothing but heartache for my choice and my only consolation was knowing that the world was safe and so were the people I loved...then let him say what he needs to say. I'm ready to listen.”

Fortunately, her speech seems to have cooled whatever lingering resentment or anger may have led him to mention anything in the first place. He sighs. “No. I'm not angry. Sorry.”

“Never mind. ...I think we both feel guilty about the decisions we made that day for selfish reasons.”

Her eyes lock with mine, and for a moment I swear I can see Vaanu itself in the eons of pain behind her gaze. Sometimes she looks at me and her eyes look so old and haunted I feel like I'm losing her all over again. I gulp against a sudden wave of grief.

“Hey, look, neither of you has to feel guilty, okay? You both did what you had to, and because of it, we're all here right now.”

“...I need some air,” Alodia mumbles, pushing back her chair and getting to her feet. Before anyone can stop her, she yanks open the door and stomps outside, leaving a tense silence in her wake.

Mike sighs. “...Sorry...”

“...She's...been doing that a lot lately,” Diego mutters, smiling apologetically. “It's not really your fault. She's scared and confused and everything is just a little overwhelming for her right now.”

“We'll just draw the curtains a little bit so we can keep an eye on her,” Raj declares, pulling the curtains apart just enough to cast his eye outside.

“I still shouldn't have said it. It was wrong of me to imply that she'd done anything wrong.”

Quinn tries to pretend she isn't glancing at me. “...We all know why you said it, though. I'm sure Alodia knows, too.”

I shift uncomfortably, feeling myself bristle a little. “We know the only reason you said it is because I've been such a fucking dysfunctional mess for the past five years,” I mutter irritably.

“...Jake...” Mike gives me a look that's so unhappy I can't stay annoyed. But I can't quite shake it off, either.

“It's true. I have. You saw it up close and personal for awhile there.”

“Yeah. I did. And I know I kinda failed at helping. ...I'd never seen you like that before, and I never want to see you like that again. I'm not sure...” He trails off, choosing his next words carefully. “...You were already more in love with her than I'd ever seen you with anyone by the time I came back to myself on La Huerta. I'd never seen anyone love you back as much as she did, either. The effect losing her had on you was...scary.”

“...If you'd actually been dead and watching from the Great Beyond or whatever, you'd have seen me act that way when I thought I lost you.”

“You'd gotten better by the time you found me again. And I'm pretty sure that was her doing.”

“In part,” I admit. “In...large part...But that's who she was, Mike. That's why she existed, to be what we all needed. Now she's trying to come to grips with an entirely new existence.”

“I'm just scared of seeing you get hurt all over again.”

“We're all afraid of that,” Estela says firmly. “But right now, we all need to be there for Alodia. Everything she did and gave up was out of love for us. She came back out of love for us. Not just for Jake or Diego, but all of us. We can't falter when she needs our support now.”

Mike sighs, but he nods. “Of course you're right.” He stands. “I think I should go apologize to her.”

Diego looks a little nervous at the suggestion. “I don't know if...” But as he considers it, he trails off and nods. “...Well...maybe that would be a good thing...”

 

Mike

 

Alodia hasn't gone far from the door. She leans on the railing of the balcony, looking out over the parking lot at the mountains that rise above the horizon. It's still early in the afternoon, and the sun is still high overhead.

“Hey...you okay out here?”

“We're in Los Angeles.”

“...Yeah...we are.”

“I grew up about an hour's drive from this city. That's what all my memories tell me. I look out at those mountains and know I recognize them. ...But all I can think about is how much I wish we were closer to the beach right now so it would feel a little more like La Huerta. ...More like home...”

I cautiously come to lean on the railing beside her, ready to pull back if she seems uncomfortable. Nothing in her posture changes, so I stay where I am.

“Listen...I'm sorry for what I said. It was uncalled for. I was worried about Jake and I never paused to consider how vulnerable you must be feeling right now.”

I'm almost surprised when she scowls at me, standing up straight. “Okay, Mike. Let me stop you right there. I understand what you're trying to say, but I want to make one thing very clear: I don't care if thirty years from now, Jake and I are settled with three grown children and a parcel of grandchildren to boot. I will still never deserve any crap for the decision I made that day. It hurt me more than anyone, and it was the right thing to do. I knew when I gave myself back to Vaanu that there was a good chance he would end up losing both of us. If you took me back to The Celestial's rooftop and told me that there was no chance I would ever be able to bring you back and that Jake would lose both of us beyond a shadow of a doubt, I would make the same choice all over again, and I am positive you would have, too. Because the cost of making sure he had one or both of us was just too high. ...I love him more than I have ever loved anyone, Mike. ...But I couldn't be that selfish. I couldn't let the world burn, and I couldn't give it to Rourke. ...So I gave myself up and prayed he would be okay. ...I'm sorry he wasn't. I'm sorry I wasn't okay, either. ...But I'm not sorry for the choice I made.”

I'm quiet for a very long time. There is not much to say to that, because she's right. And finally, I just say that. “You're right. You don't deserve any crap for that. You made the right decision.”

“...I'm here now, Mike. I'm here, and I'm reasonably sure I'm here for good. But however long I'm here for, it would be wonderful if I could just be with him...” She folds her arms on the railing and lets her head drop into them. “...That's all I've wanted for so long...just to be with him as his wife, for as long as we're both here.”

“You deserve that.”

She turns her eyes toward me. “...I'd like to be able to actually get to know you, too.”

“...I...really?”

“You are my husband's best friend. Besides, I got pretty invested in you. ...The first time we slept together, Jake told me about you. About how you met, how you died...or, how he thought you'd died. Jake met me and Diego at the same time, got to know how he and I worked together. I think we reminded him of the two of you. As he got a little more comfortable with everyone else, he started telling us all stories about the good times. ...I wanted to know the man who had been like a brother to the man I loved. When we learned you were alive, I was determined to bring you back. Not just for his sake, but because I wanted to know you. The guy who spraypainted 'I can't stop farting' on his parachute in Korean hangul.”

I burst out laughing at that. “Oh, god, he told you about that?”

She grins a little shyly. “Yeah. He did.” Then her smile slips. “...I was sort of there the day your plane blew up over Kharzistan.”

The laughter dies in my throat. “Wait, what?”

“...How much do you actually know about what I am? What I was?”

“Well...I still got memories from when I was being controlled, so I know what little Rourke said about you, but that was mostly about how you could be the key to his success or you could destroy everything, and no matter what, we were to bring you in alive. Also, right before we fought that three-headed sea monster on La Huerta, Jake told me...I think the whole story up to that point. You were the Endless that Rourke had been looking for, or rather, some alternate version of you was the Endless. He told me about the Vaanti...the Island's Heart...”

“...The idols?”

“He told me those were important to the Vaanti. Also...you had said something about watching everyone die, and apparently this had all happened two-thousand plus times before...”

She nods. “...The Endless forged those idols using...well...using everyone's blood to form a psychic link to me. She was trying to warn me. And prepare me for what I would eventually discover. ...Each idol gave me a vision of the past, from before the island, and then showed me a vision of what I thought was the future where the Catalyst connected with that idol died. The visions of the past especially were like...being a passenger inside the minds of my friends. I could feel their emotions, hear their thoughts, but I still had my own consciousness. ...I realize now those visions of the past were showing me what each person needed me to be...”

“...And...Jake's idol showed the day Lundgren ambushed us.”

“Exactly. ...Because that was the part of his past that weighed him down, kept him from moving forward.”

“...And you...lived that moment?” She nods slowly. I regard her silently for a long moment. “...You're gonna take some getting used to, aren't you.”

“Well, I'm a living time anomaly. A human existence has been written for me, but the truth of the matter is still that I was willed into being when the needs of eleven very special people met with the energy of one lonely alien trapped on Earth.”

“Still, I can't just treat you like any other girl or guy Jake ever went to bed with. Not only is your situation completely outside anything I'd ever experienced before, but I don't think it would be an exaggeration to call you his soulmate.”

“No, I don't think it would be an exaggeration either. But hey, Diego's soulmate is a blue-skinned prince from a hidden kingdom on a tropical island to whom I am psychically linked, and I told him that if he ever hurt my friend, I would use that link to destroy him from the inside out.”

“Well, I'm not psychically linked to you, but I can promise you that if you mistreat Jake, being a half-alien time-traveling super goddess isn't going to protect you from my wrath.”

She straightens, grinning at me. “I wouldn't have it any other way.”

“And...for the record, heroic sacrifices don't count as mistreating him. Even if they hurt him.”

“If they did, you'd be a hypocrite.” She turns her back towards the railing, leaning back on her elbows. “Hey...stop me if this is too personal a question but, why do you wear the eyepatch? Think your bionic eye is going to scare children?”

“Nah. Most kids see the bionic eye and they think I'm a cyborg, which most think is pretty cool. The eyepatch makes them think I'm a pirate, which they still think is pretty cool. But the eyepatch raises fewer questions with adults.” I glance at her. “...Can I ask you a personal question now?”

“Shoot.”

“You said you saw visions of your friends dying in the idols. ...How did Jake die?” I can practically see every fiber of every muscle in her body tense. Any ease in her expression is instantly replaced with agony. “If it's too much, you don't have to answer.”

“It's...not that. But...you're not going to like hearing it. At all.”

My heart sinks. “So...I was involved.”

She nods. “...You were still being controlled in the timeline I saw.” After a moment of hesitation, she tells me the rest in a rush. “He had been imprisoned by Rourke for five years at that point. He and I both had. He in a cell and me in a stasis pod. Most of the others were dead, I think. Zahra had been working for Rourke, but it was all a ploy for revenge. Just before she shot him, she let loose a virus on his systems that destroyed everything he had been working on, as well as opening all the cells on the island. Jake got out and came to find me. But as we were escaping, you...as Mouse, you...well...you shot him. ...He broke your neck before he died.”

...It shouldn't gut me the way it does. I was being controlled. It was a different timeline. Everything's repaired now. But still...even in the timeline that I remember, knowing that I hurt him, even if I didn't kill him...

“...What happened to you? In that timeline?”

“Somehow, I escaped. I think I rejoined the Vaanti and learned for a fact that everyone else was dead, except Aleister. ...I hunted him down and killed him myself. Pushed him out a window.”

“...Wow.”

“I don't look like I have it in me, do I.”

“Not at first glance, no. ...But appearances can be deceiving, I suppose. And I really shouldn't underestimate a living time anomaly.”

She offers me a half-hearted smile. “No, you should not.”

The door to the room opens, and Jake pokes his head out. “Hey. Hope you two ain't fighting out here.”

“Not at all,” she assures him. “In fact, we're getting along famously. It won't be long before I pry all your most embarrassing moments out of him.”

Jake snorts. “Princess, you want those stories, all you gotta do is cozy up to my big sister for five minutes. Speaking of which, she's on her way, so you might wanna head back into the room. Don't wanna shock her with you all at once.”

Alodia nods slowly, pushing off the railing and drifting toward the door. Before she can go in, Jake catches her arm and pulls her in for a tender kiss, cupping her cheek. After a moment, he breaks the kiss to rest his forehead on hers.

“It's okay, Alodia. It's all gonna be okay. I promise.” He brushes her mouth with his again. “I love you.”

She pulls herself tightly against him, burying her face in his chest. “I love you.”

“It's not gonna be long. Her precinct's near Venice. We'll be in soon.” She leaves him with obvious reluctance, shutting the door behind her.

“Where do you want me?” I ask.

“Out here,” he answers promptly. “With me. Gonna need the backup.”

I put a hand on his shoulder. “You got it, Grandpa.”

“So...what do you think of her?”

I grin. “Well, I hardly know her yet. But she made a hell of a good first impression on that island. Remember, the first time I really saw her as myself, she was getting everyone pumped up to fight a goddamn hydra.”

He laughs. “Hopefully, those days are over. And I hope you do like her when you know her under calmer circumstances. ...She means the world to me, Mike. ...I ain't never been so in love in my life.”

“Yeah, I can tell. ...I don't think you have to worry yourself sick about her. She's a fighter, that one. Hell, on the island, she was the one both Rourke and Lundgren feared most. Above you, above Estela the Dictator Killer, above Rourke's own son, above Quinn with her superpowers, above all the Vaanti...no one scared them more than Alodia the Mystery. ...Once she gets her feet under her, she'll be back to being that unstoppable force.”

“I hope when she does, she is able to stop for awhile.”

I go quiet after that, just waiting with him for the twenty minutes or so it takes to bring the emerald-green coupe that Rebecca drives when she's off duty into the motel parking lot. She parks a few spaces down from where we are and gets out. She's dressed in civilian clothes, but I know she's still carrying her piece under her vest. She doesn't lock it up until she gets home, and I doubt she's been home yet.

“Hey, Rebecca!” Jake calls, waving to her from the balcony. She waves back and climbs the stairs up to us. The first thing she does is pull her brother into a hug.

“Good to see you, Jacob. And Michael Darwin, it's been too long.”

I smile, holding out my hand for her to shake. “Good to see you, Rebecca.” She accepts my handshake with an easy smile, but her eyes show concern.

“Okay, now the pleasantries are out of the way. Jake, you made whatever this is sound pretty urgent. I just got off a long shift and I ain't even been home for a proper bath yet, so I hope I ain't been misled.”

“No. I promise you, it's urgent. I need your help.”

“Just tell me you haven't gotten in any legal trouble. If that's the case, you need to get a lawyer and leave me out of it.”

“Relax, sis, I'm all on the right side of the law. The help's needed in protecting someone else who's on the right side of the law.”

She frowns. “...You talkin' about someone who's been abused or something? Because that I can help you with. ...Long as they aren't a minor you kidnapped and that's why we're meeting at a motel.”

“No, nothing like that. She's twenty-seven. Here of her own free will.”

“I see. What's her situation.”

“...Why don't you come inside and meet her so she can explain it?”

Alodia

Varyyn hides in the bathroom while we wait for Jake to bring his sister into the room. I sit on the edge of the bed between Diego and Quinn, each of them clutching one of my hands. I can hardly believe how badly I'm shaking. When I hear the sound of a keycard sliding into the door, I draw in a sharp breath, gripping the hands that hold mine.

Jake enters with Mike and a woman I recognize as his sister Rebecca. She looks critically at each of us.

“...Who're all these people?”

“Rebecca, you remember Diego Soto? He was one of the students who won the La Huerta trip. And that's Raj Bhandarkhar, Quinn Kelly, and Estela Montoya. They were on the La Huerta trip, too. As was she.” He holds his hand out to me, and I get up to take it. He kisses my knuckles and winds an arm around my waist. “Rebecca...this is Alodia Chandler. My wife.”

The silence that follows is unbearable, but I can't bring myself to break it on my own. I stare at Rebecca McKenzie like an idiot, wondering if there's any chance she remembers the time she saved my best friend's life over a decade ago. Finally, she speaks.

“...Where did you find her?”

“...On La Huerta. And, before we explain any more, there's someone else we need you to meet.” He nods at Diego, who rises and knocks on the bathroom door. Varyyn steps out. If he is nervous about meeting Rebecca, he doesn't show it. He finds her gaze and holds it. Rebecca stares at him, confused.

“...A guy in an alien costume?”

“It is not a costume,” Varyyn replies. “My name is Varyyn. I am a Vaanti.”

Rebecca looks suspiciously at her brother. “...Jake, what is going on here?”

“Sit down, Rebecca. We're gonna tell you everything.”

She obeys somewhat numbly. Between us all, we tell her the whole story. From the bizzare storm on our way to the island, to finding Rourke in a stasis tube, to the Vaanti, the idols, returning to Hartfeld to find everything burning, the Endless, Vaanu, and Project Janus. We tell her how the Vaanti's ancestors were humans who drank the sap of Elyys'tel. How I discovered my true nature and chose to give my energy back to Vaanu to reverse the damage to the world. ...And how after five years, Silas Prescott's invention had given me the energy I needed to regain my human existence, and how I was now being retconned into the world. ...We even tell her that Jake and I were handfasted in a Vaanti ceremony alongside Varyyn and Diego. She listens attentively, asking thoughtful questions when they occur to her, but otherwise letting us explain. When we're finished, she sits quietly for a very long time, digesting what she's just heard.

“...I shouldn't be buying this,” she says at last. “I mean, it sounds insane. ...But between the eight of you, there isn't a single inconsistency in your story. Which is particularly remarkable considering you're telling a story about time anomalies. ...Besides that, I follow the news. I know what's happening over on the east coast.”

“...So, you believe us?”

“To paraphrase the ghost of Jacob Marley, what evidence could I ask of your reality beyond my own senses? I got a blue man standing in front of me that sure as hell didn't turn that shade from silver exposure, and two days ago, superhumans burned down a DMV on the east coast. You tell me why I shouldn't believe you.”

The relief that floods through me almost drives me to my knees. I cling to Jake, who keeps me upright. I look up and see him grinning at his sister.

“I knew we could count on you.”

“I'm a bit nervous to ask now, but...you wouldn't have told me all this if you didn't need my help with some part of it.”

“Well, yes,” I admit. “We do need to ask a favor or two of you.”

“For one...we kinda need you to help us hide Varyyn until Diego can rent a place. Or Alodia gets control of her folks' beach house. Whichever comes first.”

“You want me to hide a blue-skinned man in my little apartment? What if I want to bring someone home?”

“You can have sex in someone else's bed for a month or two, can't you? Please, Rebecca, this is important. Diego is Alodia's best friend and she needs him right now, but Varyyn is his husband, and we don't wanna keep the lovebirds apart longer than we have to.” He flashes her a set of puppy dog eyes that would melt a heart of stone. “You'd really be helping us out.”

Rebecca's mouth twists, but finally she sighs. “Okay, okay. Enough with the doe eyes. Jesus, we're both in our thirties. You'd think I'd have built up a resistance by this point.”

“Face it, 'Becca. We're gonna be in our sixties before you stop seeing me as the adorable kid brother tagging along with you through the woods.”

“Just be glad I remember that more than the smelly, hostile teenaged brother who gleefully told me all my favorite bands sucked. ...I'll agree to keep Varyyn hidden for at least three months. But don't dawdle on finding a place of your own to hide him. I ain't saying I'm gonna kick him out, but I do want my life back at some point.”

“Of course,” Diego assures her quickly. “Believe me, we would like to be living together again as soon as possible.”

“...The other thing we need your help on is getting Alodia back to her family. As you can imagine, we'd like to make as small a ripple as possible slipping her back into the world.”

“That...isn't gonna be easy, Jake. At all. Police reports are a matter of public record. And the whole Rourke/La Huerta thing was international news. ...The reappearance of the last Hartfeld winner is going to cause a stir, even five years later. The best I think we can do there is make statements calling for everyone to respect their privacy.”

“Do we have to go through the police at all?” Raj asks.

“If you want her to be on the right side of the law, yeah. She needs paperwork and records to get a job, after all, which I assume is in your future plans. I suppose if you don't want your family to know, there might be ways we could--”

“No,” I say quickly. “I want them to know. I want to know them, too. ...I can deal with whatever attention comes from this. The man responsible for Alodia Chandler's disappearance is already in prison, for kidnapping, murder, and attempted murder, so I can't imagine that they would press the issue...”

“It would probably be considered double jeopardy, but procedural defense is slightly above my paygrade, so I couldn't say for sure.” Rebecca looks around at us. “...Y'all better have your story straight regarding how you found her and where. And I don't just mean all y'all in front of me. All your other friends who were on that trip need to give the same story if they're ever asked.”

“Don't worry about that,” I assure her. “We've been drilling the details for days.”

She pins me with a steady gaze. She looks so much like Jake. Her hair is a little more auburn, but her eyes are the same shade of clear blue, and she has the same high cheekbones and long eyelashes.

“Alodia, there's something I want to make sure you understand: you're twenty-seven, and mentally competent, so we can't force you to go back to your family. By the same token, we can't force them to take you back in, either. You gonna be okay without them for a safety net?”

“I'll take care of her,” Jake says quickly.

“We all will,” Estela promises firmly.

“We're her real family, anyway,” Diego adds. “We won't let her be left in the cold.”

I smile gratefully at them, but Rebecca's statement has put something cold and hard in my belly. Until now, I had pretty much assumed that my aunt and uncle would take me back, at least for a little while. I suppose the worry had always been there in the back of my mind that they wouldn't want to be burdened with me again, but having Rebecca tell me point-blank that they might have the option of turning me out makes the possibility seem much more real. It hurts, which is ridiculous. I don't even know these people. Like Diego said, the Catalysts are my real family. ...But just the thought that the people who raised me in this timeline would be so indifferent to me that they would turn their backs on me after I'd been missing for five years... I grip Jake tighter, and he responds to the pressure, pulling me closer. Rebecca regards us all silently for a moment, then nods.

“Okay, then. ...Y'all got a vehicle I assume?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Mike, why don't you take the blue man to my apartment so he's out of the way.” She pulls a ring of keys from her purse and unhooks three. “Door to the building, front door knob, deadbolt. Once you guys are gone, I'll call this in.”

* * *

The next few hours after Rebecca calls her precinct to report a missing person found pass in a blur of police officers asking questions, making phone calls, and taking cheek swabs to check my DNA against the samples taken from my personal affects when I first disappeared five years ago. After confirming that I am who I claim to be, they finally call my aunt and uncle. My friends were also taken in one by one and questioned, but they seem to be cleared of any suspicion, because they're all allowed to wait with me. On a bench in the waiting area, I curl up in Jake's arms with Diego beside me. Raj slumps on the opposite bench, where Quinn lies on her back with her head propped on his lap. Estela tries to disguise her anxious pacing by getting paper cup after paper cup of water from the cooler, only to blush as she asks one of the supervising officers for directions to the bathroom. She comes back and sits down with a heavy sigh, drumming her fingers on the bench beside her.

“I'm getting hungry, dude,” Raj mutters.

“Me, too,” Quinn sighs. “It's almost ten o'clock...”

“Well, her folks are coming from Riverside,” Diego says. “But they called them about an hour ago, so they should be here any minute.”

It's actually another twenty minutes before I finally hear an officer say, “She's right this way, Mr. and Mrs. Fisher.”

I sit up sharply. Jake squeezes my hand. And suddenly, there they are. I know their faces. Aunt Molly looks so much like me that most people assume she's my mother. So often when I was growing up, she would take a long look at me, and the plastic surgeon in her would start analyzing my every feature, comparing them to hers, describing me like something she was sculpting out of clay. We're built short, slim, and broad-hipped, though she is a true hourglass whereas I'm a little bit more pear-shaped. We have the same heart-shaped face, the same golden-blonde hair, the same cerulean eyes. But my nose, she always said, what she called my “cute little snub nose,” came from her mother. My mother's mother. My grandmother. Aunt Molly has an elegant “greek nose” that I tended to envy. But then, perhaps it was all even, since she confessed to being wildly jealous of my “rosebud mouth”, which must have been a genetic gift from my father.

She never analyzed Uncle Rob in front of me. There never seemed to be a need. Uncle Rob was “the most handsome man in the world.” Looking at him now, even with his hair going gray and thin, his skin starting to slacken, and his potbelly pushing against the waistband of his jeans, I can have no trouble believing that he was once the sort of handsome that made anyone with an eye for male flesh swoon.

A part of me thinks I should embrace them. Another part of me still can't believe that they're real. These are the people who raised me. The family I was granted when time took me back into its fold. I stand up slowly.

Aunt Molly chokes on a sob and rushes to pull me into her arms. “Alodia...darling, darling girl...”

Even Uncle Rob puts a tentative hand on my back and bends to kiss the crown of my head. “You've hardly changed a day...”

I hesitantly wind my arms around my aunt. She smells like some kind of elegant perfume. “You might be surprised.”

The officer clears his throat. “Alodia, do you want to go home with your family?”

I pull back from my aunt and glance back at the others, feeling suddenly vulnerable. “...Only if my friends can come with me.”

“Your friends?” Aunt Molly repeats.

“Yes. Of course you know Diego already. ...That's Raj, Quinn, Estela...and Jake.” I pointedly take Jake's hand. “...My boyfriend. ...They were all on the La Huerta trip with me.”

My aunt and uncle are quiet for just a moment, exchanging glances. Finally, Uncle Rob clears his throat. “Alodia, right now you can have anything you want. The only problem is that after the three of us, the car is only going to fit about two more...”

“Jake and Diego should go,” Estela says quickly.

“Mike's back at the motel,” Jake murmurs. “I'll text him to pick you guys up, and you can follow. If...you would be willing to give me the address where they can meet us?” He looks up at my aunt and uncle. Aunt Molly hesitates for a moment before giving him the address. I recite it with her under my breath, just to make sure I can.

When we're assured that Mike is on his way, Jake, Diego, and I are ushered out of the station to my aunt and uncle's luxury car. I'm not sure what kind it is. I doubt it's the same one they were driving when I disappeared. No one says much on the drive back. I don't think Aunt Molly or Uncle Rob want to grill me on where I've been or how I was found. I do notice Aunt Molly keeps angling her gaze toward the rearview mirror to check on me. ...Or maybe to check on Jake since I stay firmly snuggled into him.

Finally, Aunt Molly does speak up. “So...Jake...you were on the La Huerta trip?”

“Ah...kind of, ma'am, yes. I was the pilot who flew everyone from Costa Rica. Ended up kinda stranded there.”

“You look so familiar...”

“Well, all of us were kind of plastered all over the news for awhile,” Diego says quickly.

“Me a little longer than some of the others,” Jake adds. “I used to be a fighter pilot in the Navy, but I was discharged in 2013 after my CO framed me and my buddy Mike for treason. Mike and me spent three years on the run, but after La Huerta we found each other and got up the courage to fight back. We won, and our former CO is currently rotting in prison. You probably remember the trial. It got near as much coverage as Rourke's.”

There is no hint of a waver in his voice as he lays out his story, and I admire him for it. He doesn't want to keep it a secret, and I admire him for that, too. And I am grateful. My aunt goes silent.

“My father was a Navy SEAL,” Uncle Rob remarks. “I have great respect for the military.”

“Glad to hear it, sir.”

Then my uncle goes silent, too. I grip Jake's hand, my belly quivering. Ridiculous as it is, I want these people to like my husband. I want my aunt and uncle to like my family. But so far, I cannot tell how he's doing. I keep finding myself glancing back over my shoulder, looking for the headlights of Mike's rented van, carrying Raj and Quinn and Estela. I know the van is a few minutes behind us, and I wouldn't necessarily be able to make it out in the dark anyway, but I keep looking back all the same.

It is nearly midnight when we finally turn onto their street, and I can see the elegant brick exterior of their home, nearly ten-thousand square feet rising two stories above an acre-and-a-half city-view lot. Uncle Rob hits a button in his car and the gate that surrounds the property opens, giving him access to the driveway that winds around to the five-car garage. Even with Jake and Diego beside me, it feels more like I'm being surrendered at a prison than coming home.

“Wait, what about the others?”

Jake pulls out his phone and taps out a quick text while Uncle Rob parks. After a minute, he says,

“Mike's about fifteen minutes away.”

“I'm gonna wait for them out front and let them in.”

“...Are you sure, pumpkin?” Uncle Rob asks. “You must be exhausted.”

For some reason, I feel a bit needled by that. “Uncle Rob, in that van are a handful of the people who were with me during the most terrifying experience of my life thus far. Raj, Quinn, Estela, and Mike were both willing and able to change whatever plans they had made before in order to support me a little bit longer. It's not going to sink me to wait fifteen minutes to show them how much that means to me.”

My uncle blinks at me for a moment. “...Okay, pumpkin. If that's what you want.”

About twenty-minutes later, I lead Mike and five Catalysts up the walkway to the stained-wood-and-frosted-glass front door with elaborate sidelights and transom. Uncle Rob unlocked it from the inside, and it pops smoothly open. The vast foyer on the other side is familiar. The marble-tiled floors, the vaulted ceilings with crystal chandeliers dripping like jewelry, massive windows with ornate brocade curtains and everything trimmed in cherrywood. The furniture is all classic, with an emphasis on Victorian style. Aunt Molly never cared for modern design. There's even a grand piano, and a harp, though both are purely for show. No one in our family plays, although I do have memories of Diego's mother ocassionally teasing tunes out of the piano when my aunt and uncle left me in her care, singing for us in a rich mezzo. All of them except Diego drink in the foyer with awe.

“Wooooah,” Raj breathes. “This is where you grew up?”

“Guilty as charged,” I reply a little sheepishly. “Well...between this place and Diego's parents' house.”

“The two of us kind of had two homes each,” Diego remarks. “A big house and a little house.”

“I know it's late, and you're all probably tired, but if you're also hungry, there are things to make sandwiches in the kitchen.”

Raj grins, and I can't help but chuckle at the gleam in his eye. “Why don't you show me where the kitchen is, and I'll see what I can do?”

When Aunt Molly glances at me, I nod. “Raj Bhandarkhar, our resident master chef. Let him loose in the kitchen, I can guarantee the results will be amazing. Come on, Raj. I'll show you where it is.”

Raj's reaction to the kitchen is exactly what I expected. He lights up like a firefly as he takes it in all the modern kitchen appliances blended seamlessly into the classic beauty of the cherrywood cabinets and granite countertops. He searches the cabinets and the refrigerator, grinning at the selection.

“Alodia, dude, I'm in heaven here.”

I laugh, throwing my arms around him. “Thank you, Raj.”

“For what?”

“For reacting exactly how I knew you would. You wouldn't believe how comforting it is to feel like all of you are still you, even after five years. You've all changed and grown and that makes me so happy...but everything that makes me love you guys is still here. You're still my Centaurus. All man, all heart, and a little wild magic thrown in for good measure.”

“Aww, Alodia!” He pulls me into a crushing embrace. “You're gonna make me cry! You're still the same Alodia you always were to me, too.”

I squirm a little, my voice coming out in a croak. “Raj...you...give really strong hugs...”

He laughs and lets me go. “Sorry. I forget sometimes that you're a delicate little peanut.” He ruffles my hair. “But seriously. I've never felt like I had to hide any side of me from you, because you believed in every side of me. I can be smart, I can be wild to the point of being a little reckless, I can be the master chef, the heart, whatever you want to call me, but you accept it all as me as long as I'm being genuine. I don't have to be a paradox with you. I can just be Raj, whatever that means in the moment.”

I grin. “Raj, anyone who tries to label you or put you in a box is inevitability going to miss something. You defy definition and that's something I love about you.”

He smiles. “Go get comfy with the others. There's plenty here to make a quick, hearty, nutritious meal to send everyone to bed with.”

* * *

When everyone has been fed, I show everyone where they can sleep before taking Jake back to my bedroom. I pause in the doorway for a moment, taking it in. It's a bedroom fit for a princess. Like the rest of the house, the furniture is elegant. Classical. A queen-sized bed with a brocade canopy and curtains in cream with a rose and vine design that matches the bedspread. The carpet is plush white, similar to how I remember it, but it's clearly either been shampooed or replaced since I lived here, because it lacks any of the food and drink stains it once sported. Like every bedroom in the house, it has a walk-in closet and a bathroom attached. A set of french doors opens onto the balcony that winds around most of the second story. Though it has clearly been kept cleaner over the last five years than I ever kept it while living here, it seems that at least my aunt and uncle didn't decide to erase every trace of my presence. Posters that I put up still adorn the walls. My childhood stuffed animals still hang in the hammock Uncle Rob attached to the corner of my ceiling to keep them organized. The wall unit still displays my extensive doll collection, my gymnastics medals, and my favorite pictures in frames.

“Could be a suite at The Celestial,” I murmur, wandering over to pick up a framed picture of me and Diego in cap and gown on the day of our high school graduation. “Not sure what the theme would be...”

“Creepy dolls that stare at you no matter where you go in the room?” Jake teases, grinning even as he eyes the dolls suspiciously.

“Hey, show some respect. I'm proud of that collection. And I'll have you know that every one of those dolls has a name and a personality.”

“Oh, yeah? Who's this one that looks suspiciously like you?”

I smile. “Her name is Cassandra. She was a Christmas present when I was twelve. I was starting to outgrow dolls by then, but the company was famous for making dolls that looked just like you, and Aunt Molly thought I should have at least one. I named her after my mom.”

“I gotta admit, I might find it hard to sleep at night with all of them looking at me.”

I laugh. “...Three guesses why I never ditched the princess bed with the curtains that close.”

I shut the door and slip into my closet, searching for a T-shirt or a nightgown or something I can wear to bed. My clothes are all still there. I select a pair of summer pajamas that admittedly don't leave much to the imagination and wander into the bathroom. Aunt Molly said there were still packages of toothbrushes in the drawer. I select one for myself and hold one out to Jake, who has stripped down to his shorts. He takes it, and we quickly brush our teeth before climbing into bed together. I turn off the light and draw the curtains around us, leaving us in a warm, dark nest. I curl up in his arms, my head on his bare chest. In his familiar embrace, with memories of a life I never had until nearly two weeks ago flooding back to me, I start to feel strangely calm.

“...I'm home, Jake...”

He kisses the top of my head. “Welcome home, Princess.”

 

Everett Rourke

 

When my island was first taken from me, when I was first placed in this institution while Iris played Solomon with my empire and delivered half to each of my children, I raged. For years, I raged against the dying of the light, lashing out like an animal at everyone around me. Then gradually, my rage settled into despair. In my quiet despair, I caused less trouble to my hosts, and so my freedoms were increased. Then a few weeks ago, everything changed.

My old friend-turned-rival Silas Prescott unveiled his new invention, and I watched with the rest of the nation on a tiny screen bolted to the wall of my cell. (They may call it a bedroom, but I refuse to sugarcoat my situation. By the same token, this institution may be called a hospital, but I know it is a prison.)

I knew immediately where the so-called Prism Crystal had come from. I had never known before that he had acquired one of my crystals for himself, but in retrospect, I was not surprised. And I did not have time to be angry with him for his betrayal, because the presence of that crystal in Northbridge after all the others had vanished gave me something I had not had in a long time: hope. It's not the Island's Heart. It's not the Endless or Alodia. But it is proof that not all is lost. All I have to do is bide my time and observe.

The appearance of superhumans is an interesting twist. Quinn Kelly's reaction to the Island's Heart demonstrated what the alien's presence could do to a human, but I had not thought the crystals were strong enough to create such a reaction on their own. I am curious how it chooses who will receive its power.

On this particular morning, I am dining in my cell, watching the news. I have kept it on nearly every waking hour since Silas' machine was unveiled. Most of it is background noise, but I do not wish to miss anything. And I am glad for such diligence when something crosses my threshold of perception and my ears prick up.

“In global news, last night a stunning development in a case that was thought to be closed five years ago: Alodia Chandler, whose disappearance became international news after it was blamed on then CEO of Rourke Industries, Everett Rourke, has apparently been found alive. Los Angeles police received a phone call yesterday afternoon from a motel room in the Venice neighborhood, where Ms. Chandler was found.”

I raise my eyes to the screen, where images of my island and the Selected drift lazily under a female reporter's voice:

“Everett Rourke has never admitted to the murder of Alodia Chandler, who disappeared on his private island of La Huerta in the Caribbean. The eleven young people who were held captive with her for six months never knew what had happened to her, either, but they feared the worst, even though no body was ever found. These days, La Huerta is still owned by Rourke International, but his two children, Aleister Rourke and Estela Montoya, have closed it to the public. Every year though, they and the nine other survivors of that fateful trip gather on the island to pay their respects to their fallen friend. And that is apparently where they found her, alive inside a military-grade stasis pod. Sources say they promptly flew her to Los Angeles via a Rourke International private jet, where five of her friends waited with her in a motel until police were contacted.”

A picture of Alodia hovers in the corner of the screen while the newscaster behind the desks reads her lines into the camera with a flawless smile on her face.

“Details of Ms. Chandler's whereabouts over the last five years are still forthcoming, but sources say that for now, she has been happily reunited with her family...”

I chuckle a little at that. This is shaping up to be very entertaining. I rise from the table and make my way to the bathroom to get my hairbrush. I am not permitted to have my own phone in this prison, but the hairbrush was a gift from an old friend. A relatively obsolete piece of Rourk International technology, but still functional. The hollow back effortlessly conceals the built-in phone, made from material that will not set off metal detectors. I pop it open and enter the number of the one who brought it for me. She answers after three rings, speaking with a tremor in her voice.

“...M-Mister Rourke...?”

“Lila, dear. It has been too long. Tell me, are you watching the news?”

 

Chapter Text

 

Jake

The curtains on Alodia's bed diffuse the light as it filters through, softening it even as it rouses me from my sleep. My wife is still curled up in my arms, looking as peaceful and content as I've ever seen her. I can't help sighing happily, but the motion of my chest rouses her. She stretches and turns her face toward me, smiling.

“Good morning, Top Gun.”

“Morning, Princess. Sleep well?”

“Better than I think I have in a long time. ...What time is it?”

“I dunno. There's not really a clock in this little cocoon.”

“Well, there's one on my nightstand, but I don't really feel like emerging from the nest to find it. I'm comfy here.” She plants a kiss on my chest, and then another, her mouth roaming teasingly towards my nipple.

“Yeah. Me too.” I let my hand slide under the waistband of her pajama shorts to cup her bottom. “And I'm getting even more comfy.”

She grins, and I feel one leg hook around mine. She slides on top of me, disappearing under the blanket as she kisses lower down my belly, hooking her fingers under my waistband. I feel myself shudder with anticipation. She giggles playfully.

“Oh, good morning...she purrs, trailing her fingers along my inner thigh.

“Shit, Princess. If you keep going, I'm never leaving this bed, and I'm totally okay with that.”

“I could keep going.” She slides up to poke her touseled blonde head out from under the blanket and kisses me. “...But I have another idea.”

Every cell in my body protests as she slips off me to push open the bedcurtains, but then she stands and holds a hand out to me. I accept and she pulls me out of bed. Then she goes towards the bathroom with her hips swaying enticingly, pulling off her top. She turns back to wink at me.

“Join me in the shower, Top Gun?”

Nothing in the world could ever make me refuse her. I push down my shorts and kick them off, following her into the bathroom.

* * *

It's about an hour before we finally get dressed and make our way downstairs. Raj has breakfast waiting for us on the table, and Mike and the other Catalysts are already awake.

“Yeah, in case you don't remember, Allie,” Diego says, “the room you stuck me in shares a wall with your bathroom, so don't think I don't know what you were up to this morning.”

“I think everyone knows what they got up to this morning,” Estela quips. “Because it's Jake and Alodia we're talking about.”

“What about Jake and Alodia?” Molly Fisher's voice, deceptively light and pleasant, sends a chill through the dining room. Suddenly, we're all acutely aware that in spite of the lavish décor and the summery air wafting through the palm trees, we're not actually on La Huerta anymore. We're in California, guests of the people who raised our Alodia. Molly and Rob stand in the doorway, eyeing us warily. We eye them back, and I slip my hand into Alodia's. We're not altogether sure what to make of each other yet. But then Alodia looks straight at them, flashing them a sweet smile.

“We had sex, Aunt Molly,” she says lightly. “In my shower. This morning. Loudly. Frankly, I'm surprised you didn't hear.”

I hear an inelegant snort behind me as Quinn chokes back laughter. I bite my cheek to keep from smiling and don't quite succeed. Rob glances at me with a look that all but screams his displeasure, and I feel the smile fade. I've seen that kinda look before on the faces of old girlfriends' fathers, particularly when I was a teenager. Some of them got it because they weren't sure of me, whether I was one of those boys who might go too far with a girl who wasn't ready for sex, or who would generally be irresponsible with sex the way a lot of teenagers are. Some of them were just scared of the idea that their daughters were growing up and looking at boys at all. And some of them were more worried about their own reputations than they were about the girls they were shielding from me. I ain't sure yet which one Rob Fisher is, but from everything Alodia's told me, I'm leaning towards the third. And I don't like it. Molly, however, doesn't look at me. She holds Alodia's gaze, smiling tightly.

“Well. Isn't that something.” She looks over the magnificent spread on the table. “And isn't this lovely. Raj, is this your handiwork?”

“Guilty as charged. Consider it thanks for hosting all of us.”

“That is very considerate of you. But it isn't strictly necessary. We have a chef who does most of our cooking. Though admittedly, she doesn't usually get here for breakfast.”

“Then I volunteer to make breakfast while I'm here,” Raj declares. “Please, everyone sit down. I'll just go heat the syrup for the French toast.”

“We can promise you, you won't be imposing on Raj by letting him make you breakfast,” Quinn assures them as we all take our seats. “He loves to cook. You may have heard of his show, Bhandarkhar Fills Bellies?”

“Ahh, of course I have heard of it. I've never seen it, though. I don't watch a lot of television.” An awkward silence ensues for a moment as Molly looks around at us. “Just...how long can all of you stay for?”

Glances pass between the Catalysts as Raj returns with a gravy boat full of warm syrup. Diego helps himself to a couple pieces of french toast.

“I'm planning to stay at my folks for a week or two while I look for a place around here to rent,” he says. “I'm teaching a course at a college in Costa Mesa this fall, so I was planning to be back here in a month or so anyway. I'm just a little early.”

“Raj and Estela and I weren't planning to stay any longer than a week,” Quinn says. “We just wanted to make sure Alodia got settled in okay.”

“And I was really just here because I dropped everyone off yesterday,” Mike adds. “I can clear out whenever I'm getting to be a nuisance.”

“...I see. What about you, Jake?”

I know what she's really saying. I think everyone in the room knows what she's really saying. And I have to think she understands what I'm really saying when I raise my eyebrow and reply, “What about me?”

“How long are you planning to stay?”

“As long as Alodia plans to stay. Ma'am. I go where she goes.”

They clearly don't like that answer, and I can think of a few reasons why that might be the case, though I'm not sure which it is yet. Maybe they just aren't thrilled by the idea of a stranger romancing their niece under their roof. Maybe they aren't sure of my intentions. Maybe they just don't like me. Which I suppose is not unfair. So far I don't like them much, either.

“...Isn't there anything you need to be getting back to? A job, or...?”

“Nothing that's as important as Alodia. I was working in a bar. I can get another job around here, I'm sure.”

“Look, son, I really don't think--” Rob is cut off by his wife's hand on his arm.

“Robert, please. Let's not be discourteous. Maybe we should hear what Alodia has to say on the matter.”

Alodia puts down her knife and fork to take my hand under the table. “I want him with me,” she answers, calmly but firmly. “But I understand if you don't want him in the house. Say the word, and we'll be packed and cleared out by the afternoon.”

“Alodia!” Rob snaps. “Be reasonable!”

“I am being reasonable. I'm twenty-seven years old, and this is your house. I won't force you to accept my boyfriend's presence, but you can't force me to stay here without him, either.”

“And where will you go? What will you do for money?”

“Unless you've stolen it, I still have that $5000 savings bond from my parents. Not to mention the trust fund that you set up for me when I was born. That would have been available to me two years ago.”

A dangerous hush settles over the table. Everyone has stopped eating, but Molly continues to cut her french toast into smaller and smaller pieces.

“You have been a missing person for five years,” she murmurs.

“Have I been declared legally dead?”

“...No. You have not.”

“And did you steal the savings bond from my parents?”

“Of course not! It should be exactly where you left it five years ago!”

“Well then. I think between us, Jake and I should have enough money to last us a little while until we find work. It would have been more convenient to stop here for a little while, but I'm not going to stay some place Jake isn't welcome.”

“Don't be ridiculous.” Molly speaks through gritted teeth. “Of course he is welcome for as long as you want him here.”

“Thank you.”

The meal continues in silence. Finally, Alodia finishes and stands, collecting her dishes. “Can I take anyone's plate?”

“You know there's no need for that,” Molly sighs. “The housekeeper will be here in an hour.”

“It's all right, really. Even if I'm living here for awhile, I don't need to be a mooch.”

I wipe a bit of syrup off my lips and stand beside her. “I'll give you a hand, Princess.” Between us, we gather up the breakfast dishes and carry them back to the kitchen. At the door to the dining room, Alodia pauses, turning to smile over her shoulder at the others.

“Why don't you guys get into your bathing suits? When we're done in the kitchen, I'll give you the grand tour, and by the time we're finished, we'll have digested enough to swim.”

“That sounds like a plan to me,” Quinn says cheerfully.

The moment we're out of the dining room, the smile drops off Alodia's face. In the kitchen, she slips the dishes into the sink with a sigh, practically yanking the tap up to turn it on. I set my pile of plates on the counter and rest a hand on her back.

“...I'm kinda getting the feeling they don't like me,” I murmur. “I'm sorry.”

“I'm not sure it's you they don't like,” she sighs. “I think it's this whole situation. ...Maybe it was a little presumptuous of me to just invite everyone back here and assume they'd be okay with you staying.”

“You didn't just invite us, Alodia. You said you didn't want to go with them unless we came with you. And your uncle said that right now you could have anything you wanted.”

“Yeah, but I don't think he was expecting any of you to become permanent guests.” She pulls open the dishwasher and starts loading the dishes in. “It's gotta be awkward for them. They had five years to get used to the idea that I was never coming back. Now suddenly I'm alive and back in their lives.”

I bristle. “Well, you know what? Call me crazy, but I'd think having you alive and healthy would overshadow any inconvenience that having you back in their house causes!” I shove a plate between the prongs like I'm angry with it.

“It's...a little more complicated than that, Jake...”

“What's complicated?! It's not complicated for me, or Diego, or Quinn, or Raj, or Estela, or any of us! Inconvenience can go to hell because you're back, and that's worth everything!”

“It's different for you guys, Jake. You needed me. More than they ever did. ...Maybe they just feel like I'm rubbing their faces in that, refusing to come home with them unless you guys came with me. Maybe they feel slighted.”

“Well, fuck their feelings! You're what should be important right now!”

She smiles a little. “...I love you for jumping to my defense. And...ultimately, I think you're right. But they are human.” She sighs, shrugging. “And hell, maybe you're right that they just don't like you. But honestly, I can't blame them for being just a little suspicious. We knew each other for six months, and five years later, you're not only still calling yourself my boyfriend, but you're sitting in their dining room after meeting them for the first time less than twenty-four hours ago and telling them you go where I go? That's gotta be damned confusing for them.”

I grunt. “Yeah, maybe,” I grudgingly admit. “But I ain't gonna pretend to be less in love with you for their sakes. And I damn sure ain't leaving you unless you tell me to leave.”

She takes me gently by the front of my shirt and kisses me. “I would never ask you to leave or pretend your less in love with me. I'm not going to pretend to be less in love with you, either. They're just going to have to get used to us as we are. Or kick us out. ...We'll give them a little time to decide which it's going to be.”

“Fair enough. And I'll try to be nice to them in the meantime. Promise.”

“Good. Ridiculous as it may be, I kinda want them to like you.”

“It ain't ridiculous. They're your family.”

“The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” she replies. “I know who my real family is. And I know who I'll choose if it ever comes to that.”

 

Estela

 

In the guest room where I've been set up, I open my suitcase and dig out my swimsuit. I am hoping Alodia's aunt and uncle won't insist on following us while she gives us a tour of their home. It was uncomfortable enough sitting through that passive-aggressive exchange at breakfast. I would wonder how two people who seem as uptight and closed-off as Molly and Robert Fisher could have raised someone as warm and open and kind as Alodia Chandler, but I suppose I know the answer to that. The Catalysts made Alodia Chandler warm and open and kind before the universe gave her a pair of guardians who were uptight and closed-off. But I am trying not to think of things that way anymore. The new truth is that Alodia is both the daughter of Vaanu, and a complete human in her own right, with a family and a past outside of La Huerta. So I suppose her warmth and openness could be attributed to a combination of nature, and the influence of Diego and his family, who I have been told did more of the raising of her than her legal guardians. It is probably down to them that she did not turn out more like my brother, acerbic and bitter until people came along who drew the kindness at his core to the surface.

I pull a pair of shorts and a T-shirt over my swimsuit and open the door to head back down to the kitchen. Then I hear voices down the hallway that don't belong to any of my friends. I slip my shoes off as I creep down the hall. There is carpeting on the upper level, but I can't risk being heard. The voices are coming from the master bedroom.

“...with her boyfriend living here?” I hear her uncle's voice. “Under our roof?”

“She's twenty-seven, Robert, not a teenager. We can't just forbid her from having a boyfriend or having sex with him.”

“We can forbid it from happening under our roof!”

“Then she'll just go do it under someone else's roof. Or her own roof.”

“Maybe she should! As you reminded me, she is twenty-seven.”

“Rob, please! She's been missing for five years. She went through god-knows-what kind of trauma on that island, and you want to immediately push her out on her own? I know you never liked her, but--”

“Molly, that's not fair...”

“Isn't it?”

“No! It isn't! When she disappeared, wasn't I there pulling every possible string to get her found?! Honestly, I don't want her to leave before she's ready, before she's got a safety net under her! That trust fund isn't going to last forever, I don't want her out of here before she's got a job! But accepting that kid as part of the deal?”

'Kid'? Perhaps it is only because he is the oldest of the Catalysts, but I have a very difficult time thinking of Jake as a 'kid'. I suppose even at thirty years old, he could be considered a kid by someone who must be twenty years his senior at least, but the way he says it makes me think he has formed a decidedly unflattering opinion of Jake.

“What exactly is wrong with him?” Molly sighs. “Is it just the fact that he had sex with our niece?”

“What about the fact that he just quit a job as a goddamn bartender?”

“He's ex-military.” She says it like it's being offered as a consolation prize.

“With a dishonorable discharge.”

“That was eventually reversed because he should not have received it in the first place.”

“Sometime between when Alodia disappeared and when she reappeared.”

“I'm not sure what your point is there.”

“He supposedly hasn't found another girlfriend five years?”

“Maybe he did and broke up with her. Maybe he's just been having casual sex. There are dozens of reasons why he might have been single when Alodia came back.”

“I just don't want some grifter taking advantage of our niece at a time like this.”

“Not everyone who tries to date her is a gold-digger, Robert. And even if this one is, isn't it better we have him under our roof with her where we can look out for her?”

“I just don't want her to end up with someone who can't take care of her.”

I think I've heard enough. Frankly, if I listen to any more, I'm going to get too angry to keep quiet. I creep back down the hall and resume a normal gait at the stairs to the kitchen. One thing is for sure: those stuck-up WASPs in there don't know anything about either their niece or her husband. They've clearly judged Jake unfairly as a deadbeat and a grifter, probably on the basis of his rough appearance, but their assessment of Alodia as some naive, lovestruck schoolgirl who can't handle herself is just as insulting. The worst part is that while I believe they may come around on Jake if they can only see how much he loves Alodia, I have to question whether they will ever see their niece for who she really is; whether they will ever see the strong, fiery, loyal, compassionate young woman who saw through my cold exterior to the human heart of me. It seems strange that the person who touched my life and the lives of all the Catalysts so deeply could have failed to touch the hearts of the people who share her blood. But I suppose that is less a mystery of her strange existence than it is a mystery of all existence. I am no one to talk about blood ties when I rejected the man who sired me while embracing the child he had so carefully crafted to be his heir—a child he later rejected himself.

I am the last one to make it to the kitchen. Alodia grins, clapping her hands. “Great! We're all here! Should we start the tour inside or outside?”

* * *

As they lead us through every flawlessly decorated room, Alodia and Diego share childhood anecdotes that banish the cold, polished aura from the corners, replacing it with warmth and nostalgia. They used to send secret messages to each other through the laundry chute running from the top floor down to the basement, either calling up and down the chute, or dropping handwritten notes from the top floor. They used to play on the balcony and pretend they were on a pirate ship, either as shipmates or captives. Inevitably, the ship would sink and they would run down to throw themselves in the pool, which would cause Diego's mother no end of distress since she had told them a thousand times not to swim without supervision. We end the tour at the terraced back yard, swimming in the in-ground pool. Mike lies back in a louge chair beside the pool, preferring not to reveal his bionic legs or his scars with strangers so nearby. For my part, with Rob and Molly Fisher inside, I start to feel more relaxed. When we gather in a circle and start tossing a colorful beach ball between us, the last of the tension left over from breakfast evaporates.

At first, I don't even notice the angry voices floating out from somewhere in the house. But they're getting louder. Slowly, we all pause in our game, tipping our heads. I'm sure her aunt and uncle are two of those voices, but there seems to be another one mixed in there. …And what's surprising is that they're all speaking Spanish. Diego and Alodia exchange a startled look.

“...Is that...?” Alodia asks.

Diego sighs. “...Yeah. That's my mother.”

Alodia and Diego hastily climb out of the pool and towel off. The rest of us follow suit, following them into the house. A woman who must be Diego's mother is pushing her way past Rob and Molly towards the back door.

“I practically raised that young lady!” she snaps in Spanish. “I can't believe none of you thought to tell me! I had to see it on the news this morning like--”

“Mama!” Diego's voice is firmly placating. “Mama, calm down!”

She stops, her eyes falling to her son. Then they shift a little ways to land on Alodia. She purses her lips.

“...And perhaps, mijo, you can explain why you of all people didn't think to inform me that the girl who grew up as your sister is home safe after five years?”

“We got in late last night,” Diego mumbles, shifting awkwardly. “I didn't think you'd even be awake.”

She grunts, turning back to Alodia. “...Mija...” She opens her arms invitingly. Alodia steps up cautiously.

“...I'm...a little wet...”

“Yes, yes, I see you have been swimming. Clearly that was more important than letting me know you were alive.”

Alodia slips Diego a slightly panicked glance before going to embrace his mother. The older woman immediately dissolves into tears.

“Mija,” she murmurs, stroking Alodia's cornsilk hair, wet and matted with pool water. “Today is the feast of San Antonio. Every year since you disappeared, I have gone to church and prayed for your safe return. I knew you were alive. I just knew it. And today, San Antonio has answered all my prayers.”

“I...didn't know if you...if you even noticed I was gone,” Alodia murmurs back. “I know we didn't exactly part on...easy terms.”

She pulls back. “...You were angry with me because of how I left things with your brother.”

“Yes.”

She looks over at Diego. “...Things are better between us now. Little by little, we are making things right again.”

“...I am glad to hear it, Mama,” Alodia answers softly, then glances around at the rest of us as she switches to English. “Let me introduce our friends: this is Estela, Raj, Quinn, Mike, and my boyfriend, Jake.”

“Your...boyfriend?” She casts a critical eye over Jake, and I can't help rolling my eyes. Clearly it's not just Alodia's WASP family that's going to be disapproving. I can't hold my tongue any longer.

“We can all vouch for him, señora,” I say dryly. “There is no need to worry.”

“...He is so scrawny, mija,” she grumbles in Spanish. “He might have muscles between his skin and bones, but he won't for long if he doesn't start eating.”

Jake clears his throat. “I speak Spanish, señora,” he says in the same. “I spent three years in Costa Rica.”

To her credit, Mrs. Soto looks properly embarrassed, but she quickly shrugs it off. “...Where have you been, mija?”

“Ramona, please! Don't press her on that now!” Molly hisses. “Alodia, darling, may I borrow you for a moment?”

Without waiting for an answer, Molly takes Alodia by the arm, forcibly dragging her away. Immediately, Jake and I step in front of her, glaring.

“Excuse me, where are you taking her?” I ask lowly. Molly looks startled by the sudden human barricade, but surprise is quickly replaced by annoyance.

“Just into the library, Estela,” she snaps. “I would like to speak to my niece privately, if her friends would kindly stop acting as if they are expecting her uncle and me to murder her every time we're left alone with her!”

“Guys...” Alodia says softly, “...Please...”

Jake and I exchange an uncertain glance before stepping aside. Jake is still frowning as Molly pulls Alodia into the library. Mike puts a hand on his shoulder.

“Maybe I should stick around a little longer. I will if you need me to.”

“I appreciate the offer, Mike, but it seems like a bad idea to make ourselves a bigger burden to these people than we need to be. Besides,” he sighs, “at some point, this is going to be something Alodia and I have to face together, just the two of us.”

I purse my lips. “You may ultimately be right. This is your life that the two of you are building together.” I glance at Diego's mother and lower my voice, leaning in. “...But don't ever forget that twelve are one.”

“I promise I never do, Katniss. ...Even if it seems that way sometimes, I never forget.”

 

Grace

 

On the second night of my show, I get home a little later than I intend to, and perhaps just a little bit in my cups. At least enough that I don't feel comfortable driving home. Outside our London flat, I hastily pay the cab driver and dash inside, hoping that Aleister isn't too worried. I haven't gotten any frantic calls or texts yet, but that doesn't always mean he hasn't been worrying, at least a little. I pound up the stairs and take a moment to slow down outside the door to avoid waking Reggie as I open the door and step inside. The light is on in the living room. Aleister sits in front of his laptop, frowing at the screen.

“Aleister? Baby, I'm home. Sorry I'm late?”

“Hmm? Oh! Grace...” He frowns, and I see him glancing at the clock on his computer before looking back up at me. “Heavens, I didn't even realize how late it was. Come kiss me, my darling.”

I do as he tells me, but I'm not too tipsy to be worried by his obvious distraction. “Is everything okay? Where's Reggie?”

“He's asleep,” he taps the baby monitor on the desk beside him. “I've been keeping an ear open. ...I've just been looking over some of the reports Zahra sent me.”

“...About the Prism Gate?”

He sighs. “For five years, her reports have all been about potential data breeches that she's already prevented...improvements to our security systems. It's shocking to suddenly be thinking about extra-dimensional crystals again.”

“What does she say?”

“Well, Prescott Industries has reopened, but we all knew that. But there's also some old information on the Prism Gate project. It's heavily redacted with some kind of code that Zahra is still trying to unscramble, but it does seem that Silas Prescott knew nothing of how deep La Huerta's mysteries ran, much less the Endless. It seems he largely believed my father was unaware of the island's unique properties. I suppose even after the trial and Father's yelping about 'crystal people', with the island closed off, Silas must have figured he had a crystal of his own and there was no need to throw himself against the barrier to comb it for more. Not that he would have found anything. I think that should keep the Vaanti safe for now at least. I just hope Alodia's return doesn't attract too much of his attention.”

“I think that might depend on his goal. Does it say anything about that?”

“There is a lot about unlocking the crystal's 'true potential'. Maybe he does simply mean to create a clean, renewable energy source.” He frowns thoughtfully. “And perhaps the crystal could be used that way...”

“Well, I hope that's all he's after. If he learns about the crystal's origins beyond La Huerta...”

“I know, I know. Even with Vaanu departed and the island closed, it still puts the Vaanti in a vulnerable position. Not to mention Alodia. Or any of us, really, if he decides we might know more than we let on.” He sighs, keeping one arm around my waist as he studies the computer screen. “There also appears to have been a break-in at the Prescott Industries lab. It's a report that was buried quite deep behind layers of security, but there is not much that can escape Zahra and Iris. ...It...isn't really clear what was taken or indeed if anything was taken...”

I bend to kiss his cheek. “You know, sugar, there's only so much you can do in one night, and the pair of us lose enough sleep as it is. Come to bed with me, okay? It's only 7:30pm in Northbridge. Zahra will probably have more for you when you wake up.”

“I expect you are right. And in my present state, I would probably miss some vital...” He trails off, frowning. “...What's this...?”

“Huh?” I frown at the screen, but my exhaustion and slight intoxication make the text blur before my eyes. “What's what?”

“...Financial records. ...It...seems Prescott Industries received a substantial grant from Mansingh Global...”

“My mom's company? ...Rourke International has received grants from her, too, right?”

“Indeed. ...It seems she is hedging her bets. I suppose we should be grateful she didn't withdraw her support after my father's imprisonment.”

“You impressed her,” I reply proudly. Even my own frustrations with my mother's worldview and behavior aren't enough to overcome the pride that swells in me when I think of that. “You and Estela. You intrigue her, and she wants to remain an investor because she thinks the two of you can take the company to new heights.”

“New heights that do not involve exploiting aliens trapped on earth or the human children they will into being, or the superhuman race that evolved after being exposed to alien tree sap.” He frowns thoughtfully. “...I wonder if the crystal might behave similarly to the sap...? And that might be why certain people exposed to it have developed superhuman abilities?”

“It's possible. The Vaanti became what they are by ingesting the sap, but Quinn got her powers simply by having half the Island's Heart in contact with her body for an extended period of time...” I sigh. “But it's too late to think too hard about it. Come to bed.”

I take his arm and tug insistantly toward the bedroom. Sighing, he closes the laptop and rises, smiling. “Very well, my dear. You know I cannot disobey you.”

I laugh. “No, you cannot.”

I look back and see him making a face. “My father is institutionalized, my mother is a hologram, and your mother is...”

“...My mother.” I finish, not needing to say more.

“Poor Reginald has only one suitable grandparent, and an aunt whom we love, but whose business is something I would much rather keep him out of. We really ought to make it a habit to see more of your father. For our son’s sake.”

“You’re right. Especially as he gets older. It will be nice for him to know that there is someone in his extended family who leads a simple life.”

Chapter Text

Alodia

Far sooner than I would like them to, Raj, Quinn, Estela, and Mike drift back to their lives. At least I still have Jake and Diego, even if Diego opts to stay with his family. I don't blame him. Both our families can be a lot to handle, and with a delicate situation like this, it is probably better to let us each manage one side. Poor Jake is not having an easy time of it with either set of guardians. He has it slightly easier with Diego's parents, but his mother is still inclined to criticize him. We've tried to assure him that Diego's mother has criticized every boyfriend I have ever had—and probably would have criticized my girlfriends too, if she had ever been able to wrap her mind around the idea of me having a romantic or sexual attachment to another woman. But maybe that's why it was easier for me to come out to them than it was for Diego. I learned to live with the fact that she would criticize every boyfriend and treat every girlfriend as if she were just a new close friend or a phase I was going through. It must have frustrated her that I seemed to keep relapsing just when she thought I was back into boys for good. Maybe in that sense, Jake is a relief to her.

For Diego, it was more difficult. He never had a girlfriend his parents could reassure themselves with. For awhile, they latched onto the idea that he and I would fall into each other's arms once our hormones hit, or we turned around and had one of those chick-flick moments where we realized that true love had been there all along. He and I did actually try kissing once when we were twelve, but it felt weird and neither of us liked it. I still played his beard on and off, but even if we fooled the rest of the world, his parents eventually started to understand that we were like brother and sister. Even if we were both straight, I doubt we ever could have seen each other that way. With that illusion shattered, I suppose it was only a matter of time before they couldn't ignore the fact that their son was gay any longer.

Diego has been out to his family since sophomore year at Hartfeld, but it's strange to think of them breaking bread with him and letting him sleep under their roof now. Since coming out, he always spent vacations with my family, who for all I could say against them have at least never batted an eye at people for their sexuality or gender identity. ...I don't like to think about how he managed things in the timeline where I didn't exist. I'm trying not to think about that timeline at all. I'm just glad his family is getting back on track. ...Maybe it helps that he can't introduce his husband to them for reasons besides his sexuality still being a touchy subject. I suppose it is easier for his parents to accept him as a free-spirited bachelor than a man married to another man, even if the other man in question were not a hyper-evolved human with blue skin.

On this particular afternoon about five days after my return to Riverside, my aunt and uncle are at work, and expected to be late. Jake and I have passed a lazy morning in each other's company, one that puts me in mind of the life he described us sharing the night of our handfasting. We stay in bed fooling around a little too late, eat a simple breakfast together, and linger over our coffee before heading out to the terrace to stretch out in the sunshine. At some point, the housekeeper arrives. It has not taken me long to realize that she doesn't like having me or Jake around while she's cleaning, so it's a blessing to us all when Diego calls and offers to take us downtown for lunch.

He's driving a white Mercedes-Benz when he pulls up to the gate. I know it's a rental since he told me he didn't want to buy a car until he had a place to live, but I still can't help being a little impressed and proud.

“Look at you, with your fancy-ass car,” I tease as Jake and I climb in. “Those book royalties really are treating you right.”

He grins sheepishly. “Well, yeah. And maybe I like to show it off a little.”

“Hell, you deserve it, Short Stuff,” Jake declares. “You wrote a good book.”

“So, what are you guys in the mood for lunch-wise?”

“Burgers,” I reply without hesitation. “Burgers and fries and something carbonated to drink.”

Jake shrugs. “Works for me.”

Diego laughs. “All right, folks. Well, we're in California, so let's do this right!”

Not long afterwards, the three of us are sitting in a booth at In-N-Out, savoring burgers, fries, sodas, and milkshakes.

“Hey, Allie?”

I look up at Diego, mumbling, “Yes?” around a mouthful of meat, bun, and fixings.

“If it's none of my business, you can tell me to buzz off, but...I was wondering. The other day when my mom showed up and your aunt dragged you into the library...what did she say to you?” When I freeze mid-chew, he hastily adds, “I mean, I'm just asking because you seemed upset, but you never said anything else...”

I finish chewing and swallow. “...She...didn't say much, actually. It seemed like once she had me in there, she forgot why she'd wanted me there in the first place. ...She did ask my why I called your mother Mama.”

“...You've always called her Mama, haven't you?”

“That's what I said. At which point Aunt Molly just kinda blinked at me and muttered something about my real mother. I told her I never even knew my real mother...”

“Wait, was she trying to say that calling the woman they hired to raise you 'Mama' is somehow disrespectful to the mother who died when you were too young to know her?” Jake asks. I shrug.

“I guess. ...It never bothered her before, though. Or if it did, she never let on.” I frown. “There was...one thing she said that kinda stood out, though. Something about how my parents tried so hard to have me...”

“They had trouble getting pregnant?”

“I guess. Unless she means that they adopted me...”

“I don't think that's likely,” Jake remarks. “Given how much you look like your aunt, that would be a hell of a coincidence if you weren't biologically related.”

“In some sense, I'm not,” I reply before I can stop myself. A moment of awkward silence descends over the table. I clear my throat. “I noticed the dance studio on the way over here. The one I used to dance at?”

“Right. I remember.”

“I was thinking I might take a few classes there to keep myself busy. And possibly go back into the Trainee program. That's where they have older students acting as teachers assistants for the younger classes. I did it back when I was a teenager,” I explain for Jake's benefit. “I know I'm older than Trainees usually are, but I've been thinking that in time I might like to teach dance. You know, for money. This might be a good way to get my foot in the door.”

“If that's what you want to do, that sounds great,” Jake says. “I should probably get off my ass and start looking for work myself. Your folks aren't gonna be as lenient with me as they are with you.”

I chuckle. My eyes wander lazily over the In-N-Out's patrons, then stop on one young woman, heading out the door. My heart leaps to my throat, and I stand up sharply.

“Hey!” Jake takes my hand, looking up at me with concern. “You okay, Princess?”

I stare at the spot where the woman had been standing. In my mind, I can still see her. Slim and athletic. Doe-brown skin. Dark hair pulled tight in a ponytail, but I can only imagine it short, cropped close to her neck...

I slowly sit back down. “I...I'm fine. There was just someone here who...looked...like...”

“...Like who...?” Diego asks.

I hesitate for a moment, wondering if I should tell them. My knee-jerk reaction is to play it off, hide it like I always did on the island whenever something happened that scared me. But no. I'm not on the island anymore.

“She looked like Lila. I'm sure it was a coincidence.” They both relax a little.

“Probably was,” Diego agrees. “Even if she was alive, I don't know what Lila would be doing in an In-N-Out in Riverside.”

“She didn't exactly seem like the burger-and-fries type,” Jake adds.

That actually makes me laugh. “You know, I never really thought about it, but you're actually right. It's really hard to imagine Lila chowing down on a burger.” I pick up another french fry and cram it into my mouth. “So, Diego, what's the class you're teaching in the fall?”

* * *

That evening, Jake and I sprawl out on the couch to watch an action movie after dinner. Something with explosions, a plot that's easy to follow and a romance that's been shoved in as an afterthought. It's in the midst of a high-speed car chase that Aunt Molly comes home. Uncle Rob is not far behind her. They pop in briefly to ask if we want dinner, but when we decline, they mostly leave us on our own for the rest of the evening. After the movie ends, though, the silence in the den brings them in.

“Would you two care to join us on the terrace for grasshoppers?” Aunt Molly asks. “There's something we'd like to discuss with you.”

Her words give me a lump in the pit of my stomach, but I don't really feel like I can refuse. I glance at Jake, who seems to feel the same.

“Yeah...sure...”

A few minutes later, we're all in lounge chairs on the terrace, lit by the outdoor lights and the lights from the pool, sipping on grasshopper ice cream cocktails. They're a perfect blend of sweet and alcoholic burn, and I sip mine slowly, savoring it.

“I gotta say, I ain't usually one for cocktails, but this is damn good,” Jake remarks.

“I'm glad you like it,” Aunt Molly says politely. “Alodia...I was wondering if you've thought at all about going back to school and finishing your degree?”

The question makes me pause. “You know...I hadn't...really considered the fact that I technically didn't finish.”

“There's no need to rush into the decision. It's just that you were doing so well at Hartfeld, and it's only been five years. It may be possible that your completed credits will still transfer if you decide to finish at a community college here. I don't know what work might be available for a history major specifically, but just having the completed degree will surely give you a boost.”

“That...may be true. I will definitely think about it.”

“...Your uncle and I had a lot of plans for your graduation. We wanted to make a big showy fuss to show you how proud we were. We have no doubt that you would have completed college when you were meant to if you hadn't gone through that nightmare. And now that you're back...we realize that an elaborate party might be a little much for you right now, but we'd had a few other treats in mind and we hope you will allow us to indulge you.”

Well, that doesn't sound too bad. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, altering our plans slightly to include your boyfriend, here's what we were thinking: I'm off next Friday. I thought I could take you to get some official things taken care of, Alodia. Renewing your driver's license, transferring your trust fund, doing some shopping, that sort of thing. Then, we drive up to Los Angeles to meet Uncle Rob and spend the weekend up there. We could stay in a nice resort, and on Saturday, you and I could have a spa day like we used to when you were a teenager. Massages, facials, wraps, mani-pedis...the whole nine yards. Followed by a nice dinner for the four of us.”

“And while our girls are getting pampered,” Uncle Rob adds, looking at Jake. “You and I can play a couple rounds of golf.”

Jake looks for a moment like a deer caught in headlights. He clears his throat. “Uh...sir, I ain't never played golf in my life. ...Except mini-golf.”

“Oh, that's all right, I'll teach you. No one will judge you if you end up over par.”

“You ain't worried I'm gonna break a window on someone's Rolls-Royce?”

He laughs. “There is a reason the course is a decent hike from where the cars are parked. Don't worry, they take all possible precautions.”

“Well...I guess fortune favors the bold.” He still sounds a little uncertain, but I'm glad he doesn't look totally panicked.

“Then it's settled,” Aunt Molly says.

“But can we get reservations for everything on such short notice?”

“Oh, don't you worry about that. We'll take care of everything. Promise.”

* * *

A week from Friday, after taking care of my driver's license and my trust fund, Aunt Molly insists on taking me shopping for new clothes for our weekend in L.A. She insists that after five years, I need a new wardrobe anyway. I could try to explain to her that my body hasn't aged. The official story that I was sealed in a stasis tube would support that statement. But I know it's not really about what I need. She wants to spoil me, and I suppose I should let her, even if it feels strange. I half-heartedly examine mannequins in everything from shorts and fitted T-shirts to sparkly evening gowns, knowing I'm inevitably going to walk away with half the store crammed into four or five bags.

I might be a little more into the indulgence if there wasn't a half-formed memory that had been tugging at my mind since we were at the DMV. Renewing my driver's license was a simple process, since I had apparently been licensed before my disappearance. But that sent my thoughts tumbling into an entirely new rabbit hole when I realized that to acquire a license or a passport or anything like that, I would have had to present a birth certificate at some point. And just like that, I remembered pulling the weathered page out of a lockbox where my aunt and uncle kept all my important official paperwork. I could picture it in my hand, fragile and brown, and oddly smooth and shiny. And across the top of the page, in overly elegant script, the words Consular Report of Birth Abroad stand out in my memory.

“Hey...Aunt Molly...what you were saying the other day, about my mom and dad trying so hard to have me...what did you mean?”

“Oh, they had a terrible time trying to get pregnant, that's all. Thankfully, the problem was in your mother's fallopian tubes, not her ovaries or uterus, or your father's sperm, and IVF worked a treat. Got you on their first try that way.”

“...Where was I born?”

Aunt Molly pauses, her hand on a glittery red evening gown, and frowns at me. “...Don't you remember?”

“Remember my own birth?” I quip. “Not likely.”

“No, I mean...I've told you the story before, haven't I? I'm sure you asked me when you saw your CRBA certificate...”

“I...don't remember,” I confess feebly.

“Your parents were on a cruise in the Caribbean, touring the Greater Antilles and escaping the cold in New York. Cassie was only thirty-four weeks gone, so they weren't really expecting anything to happen before they got back, but I guess you were eager, because her water broke just before midnight during the New Year's Party on deck. The ship was anchored somewhere between Kingston and Santo Domingo, and they had to rush to the nearest port. The whole thing was over within five hours.”

“Was I born at sea?”

“Well, you were definitely born on the ship. Your mother was never sure if they made it to port on one of the smaller islands or not. Either way, they had to go to the American embassy in the Dominican Republic to get you a CRBA certificate so you'd be recognized as an American citizen.”

“Oh.”

I don't know if my aunt has made the connection. If she paid attention when I won that trip back in college to where I was heading, if it ever occurred to her to look at a map of the Caribbean, or if it ever crossed her mind to muse about it. I don't ask. And I don't tell her what has quickly become obvious to me: that the cruise ship my mother and father were on had indeed made it to port. Even in this timeline, where I have my own life and my own existence outside its influence, I was born on La Huerta.

* * *

They surround me and my friends as we press together, bound and on our knees somewhere in the jungle. Their skin gleams vibrant shades of blue and green, tattoos curling over their glistening bodies. Watchers. Hostiles. Or whatever it is they call themselves. They bark at us in a fearsome, guttural tongue, thrusting spears and knives in our direction.

The sea of green and blue humanoid bodies parts, revealing two blue-skinned males, one stooped and wrinkled, one young and strong, more than six feet of pure, sculpted muscle. I know the latter. He is their leader. The one who wore the lion mask. Who touched my forehead and broke the barrier between us so that we could communicate. Who led the attack on The Celestial. Who took my best friend from me. All fear is washed away by a cold, desperate anger. I draw myself up on my knees and capture his gaze with mine, glaring.

“Where is my friend?”

To my surprise, the Watcher's eyes soften as they take in the sight of me. “You are Alodia. ...The one who was a child with Diego. Who is like his sister.”

“Yes. I am. Where is my brother?”

There is something in the Watcher's gaze that makes me feel cold all over. Something like...pity. Sorrow.

“I will take you to him.”

“Varyyn...” The old man speaks in his native tongue, but somehow I understand him. “Your mother has requested that the Catalysts be brought before her immediately.”

“This one is very special to Canis. I must take her to him.”

“And what am I to tell your mother?”

“Tell her that I believe seeing his sister again may give Diego strength. Unless you believe Raan'losti can be averted with only eleven Catalysts.”

“Wh-what are you talking about?” Dread is growing in the pit of my stomach as my mind races towards understanding. “What do you mean 'give him strength'? What's wrong?!”

“Come. I will take you to him.” Before I can ask any more questions, he has cut my bonds and pulled me to my feet. My friends, only understanding half the conversation, immediately begin shouting in protest, struggling even as amber speartips press closer to their flesh.

“Princess!” Jake cries.

“Take your hands off her!” Sean snarls.

“Where she goes, we go!” Raj adds. “Or else no one goes anywhere!”

“Wait!” I cry. “He's taking me to Diego!”

“Then tell him to take us with you!” There is desperation and fear in Jake's eyes. “Don't let him take you alone, Princess! Please!”

“You can't trust him!” Estela adds.

“You need someone to watch your back!” Craig agrees.

The Watcher—Varyyn—keeps a grip on my arm. I look back up at him. “...They're afraid,” I try to explain. “They think you're going to hurt me. They want you to let a few of them come with me.”

“I know,” he answers in English. Surprise goes through me like a mild electric shock, but it's overpowered by fear for Diego. He looks over my friends. Slowly he points to Jake. Then to Sean. Then...to Michelle. In his native tongue, he says, “Lupus, Aquila, and Pavo. Cut their bonds and have them follow me.”

The warriors obey. Jake rushes to take my hand. I grip his as we follow the Watcher into the village. He leads us into a quiet hut where a small fire is burning. My heart drops into my gut.

Diego, his hair grown to his shoulders and a six-month-old beard on his ashen face, lies curled in a hammock, shivering under a blanket. His cheeks are high with feverish color. Sweat glistens on his forehead. His breathing is shallow and labored, ragged as if the act of pulling in air is painful.

“Diego!” I drop Jake's hand to run to my brother's side and find his. His grip is limp in mine as I gently push sweaty strands of hair off his hot forehead. His eyes flutter.

“A-Allie...?” he croaks feebly.

“It's me,” I assure him, even as I hear my voice trembling. “It's me. I'm here. It's okay, I'm here. Everything's going to be okay.”

I don't know if Varyyn understood what he was doing when he let Michelle come with us, but I don't question it now. I look desperately at her, silently pleading with her to fix this. Make him better. She is already at his other side, feeling his pulse, laying the back of her hand to his forehead. She is frowning as she puts her ear to his chest to listen to his lungs. She rises, looking at Varyyn.

“How long has he been like this?”

“Nearly two weeks,” Varyyn answers softly. “We have tried everything we know. But I am afraid this is beyond our experience.”

“...Pneumonia is beyond your experience?” she asks incredulously.

“I...do not know that word...”

“Inflammation of the small air sacs in the lungs. It's why his breath sounds so ragged.”

“...I have never heard anyone breath that way who did not show...in...injury...” he replies, his voice a whisper. I bite my lip, trying to hold back a sob as I stroke Diego's cheek with a trembling hand. Michelle purses her lips.

“Show me what you've been treating him with. If he's been like this for two weeks, things are unfortunately very, very serious.” She puts a hand on my shoulder. “Don't give up yet, though. I'm not going to let him die.”

I smile feebly at her, but when I look back down at my best friend, I feel my heart sinking. Michelle won't stop trying to save him. Not until he dies. ...But I have a terrible feeling he is already past hope...

 

Jake

 

In the darkened bedroom of a luxury suite at a Los Angeles resort, I find myself roused from sleep. At first, I'm not sure what's got me up. Then, in the darkness, I start to make out the sound of soft sobbing. Alodia's voice is muffled, like she's crying into her pillow, but the sound is unmistakeable, and she sounds like her heart is breaking. Still bleary, I roll over and put an arm over her, drawing her close. She curls into me, weeping brokenly.

“I'm here,” I murmur into her hair. “I'm right here.”

She tightens her grip, fingertips digging into my back. Her face presses into my shoulder. She makes a noise that sounds like an attempt at speech, but her words are garbled with tears.

“...You wanna tell me what's wrong?” I ask gently. She nods, but she doesn't speak until I ask, “Was it a bad dream?”

She nods again, this time whimpering, “...It was Diego...”

“He's okay. He's alive and well, and he's in Riverside.”

“...In my dream, he was in Elyys'tel...it was just after we jumped six months ahead.”

“What happened to him.”

“He was sick. Pneumonia, Michelle said. Apparently, he'd been sick for a few weeks...”

“We couldn't save him with the Island's Heart like we did for Quinn?”

“I don't think so. Not in that timeline. Varyyn wasn't elyyshar yet. I don't think he felt brave enough to demand that Uqzhaal tell him about it. Besides, the Catalysts as a whole didn't have the rapport with the Vaanti yet that we had when we used the Heart to save Quinn.”

There's not much I can say to that. I just hold her against me, stroking her hair. Finally, I say, “It's over. Everything we went through on that island is over. The cycle is broken, Vaanu is free, and you're home safe with me.”

She sighs, nestling into me. “I just wish we weren't in an L.A. resort with my aunt and uncle in a suite down the hall. That whole nightmare began in a luxury resort.” She whines a little. “God, Jake, I wish I hadn't agreed to this weekend...”

“Really? All things considered, it seems pretty generous of your folks...”

“Yeah, but it's their kind of generous, which means it's showy and expensive, and whatever this surprise is on Sunday, it's also going to be showy and expensive...and it was one thing when I was a kid and I was dependent on them, but taking their money now...that trust fund and everything...I haven't earned any of it...”

“Are you worried someone is gonna think you're spoiled? That you've had everything handed to you on a silver platter?”

“Well...yes.”

“And whose opinion is it you're concerned about?”

“...I...” she trails off. “...I don't know...”

“Mine?”

“...No...”

“Diego? Sean? Estela? Quinn?”

“No, not any of you...”

I kiss the top of her head. “Your family knows you're not spoiled. In fact, Princess, as far as I'm concerned, anything your folks give you, you more than deserve it. You gave up your existence to save the goddamned world. If your folks want to give you a luxury weekend in L.A., fucking let 'em. If they wanna give you a car, fucking let 'em. If they wanna give you a trust fund so that you always have a financial safety net, keep it. You took care of us and the whole world. Let the world take care of you for awhile.”

“...Raj said something similar.”

“Raj is smart. You should listen to him.”

She lets out a short laugh. “Yeah...I should, I guess. But I don't want the world to take care of me forever.”

“It won't be forever. Just long enough that you can figure out what to do with your second chance. And as long as you want me to be a part of it, I'll be here.”

“I always want you here, Top Gun,” she replies affectionately. I roll onto my back to draw her to my side. She lays her head on my chest. “...Hey...Jake?”

“Yeah?”

“...Do you think it's really over?”

“Is what over?”

“...The island. Everything La Huerta did to us. The two-thousand one-hundred thirty-nine loops. The Endless, the Island's Heart, Vaanu. ...Are we really free from that?”

I want with all my heart to tell her yes. Of course we are. But how can I tell her that when there's a time crystal running rampant somewhere on the east coast? Truth is, I don't think it is over, not by a long shot. And while I'm less scared of her disappearing again than I was when she first came back, I am still fucking terrified that this whole Prism Gate thing is going to end up hurting her somehow.

“...I don't know, Princess. I really don't. I hope like hell we are. ...But all I can promise is that if we're not, I ain't gonna let anyone hurt you. And neither are any of the others.”

“I think I'm going to need protection if it comes to it,” she admits. “I don't have any of the Endless' powers anymore.”

“Hey, maybe you can't time travel, but you're still a badass.” I tap her nose lovingly, and she snorts. “I mean it. Everything the Endless was and could have been is still in you, and that ain't changing. Now what's say we get a little sleep? I gotta get up early so your uncle can probably kick my ass at golf.”

* * *

At six in the morning, Alodia and I drag ourselves out of bed. We resist the urge to shower together, knowing that we'll just end up late for breakfast, stumble into our clothes, and shuffle into the elevator. After hitting the breakfast buffet with her folks, we reluctantly part for the day. She goes with her aunt, and I follow Rob to his car. From there, things get kinda surreal, honestly. When we reach the course, I'm introduced to Fred and Leon, who have been enlisted to complete our foursome. I am introduced as the boyfriend of Rob's niece. They both know who his niece is. They both know that she's been found. They're both a little mystified that she “already” has a boyfriend, and can't decide which of us is the one rushing into things.

As we made our way to Elyys'tel a few weeks ago, Alodia told us about when we made that journey with Rourke and getting trapped in a time loop of approximately twenty minutes. She was the only one aware of it. She described how every time, something subtle changed, and she had to learn from each loop until she found the source of the disturbance and destroyed it. As I play golf with Robert Fisher and his two friends, I start to feel like I can empathize. Rob takes his turn first, then me, then Fred and Leon. During Rob's turn, Fred and Leon make small talk in soft voices, trying to figure me out. They ask their questions, and I answer.

“How did you meet Alodia, Jake?”

“...We were on La Huerta together. I was the pilot who flew her and the others from Costa Rica, and I got stranded there with them.”

“You're up, Jake!”

I take my turn, end up well over par, and slink back to my spot, where the older men have been muttering. While Fred and Leon take their turns, Rob eyes me quietly. Then it all begins again on the next hole. The questions...

“So you're a pilot, huh?”

“Well, not so much anymore, but yeah. Used to be a fighter pilot in the navy. Then I got discharged and flew commercially for awhile. But I was working as a bartender when Alodia turned up again.”

… and then I take my turn, ending up well over par. It all goes on for more than four hours. But finally, Rob and I break off from his friends and head into the clubhouse for lunch. The whole place oozes an old-fashioned sort of masculinity, not necessarily toxic, but it kinda reminds me of the naval academy in a way that isn't always good. The navy can turn out guys like Mike, but it can also turn out assholes like Lundgren—and women like Jeanine, who throw their lot in with assholes like Lundgren out of a thirst to prove themselves, desperation to survive among the male recruits, a genuine lust for power, or some combination of those. Still, this place has beer and sandwiches, and I could use a couple of each after what I just went through. We wolf down sandwiches and Rob orders another round of beers.

“Not bad for your first try,” he says generously.

“Suspect that's a lie, but I appreciate it.”

“Well. Now that we're in slightly more private surroundings, I was hoping you and I could discuss a few things, man-to-man.”

I should have guessed something like this was coming. “Let me guess. You're wondering about my 'intentions towards your niece'.”

Rob barely bats an eye. “Something like that, yes.”

“You do know she's an adult, right?” I probably shouldn't act so cocky, but I don't have it in me to play humble and deferent to this guy when that would mean playing into this bullshit notion of Alodia as some delicate, naive flower. She fought a fucking hydra for fuck's sake.

“Even adults can be taken in sometimes,” he replies.

“I don't think you have to worry about that with Alodia. She can smell bullshit a mile away.”

“Nonetheless, perhaps you can reassure me.”

I take a deep swallow from my second beer. “Fine. My 'intentions' are to be with her and love her as long as she lets me. To be her partner in life. To be her friend and her lover.”

“You speak very romantically for only having known her for six months.”

“When you know, you know,” I reply, shrugging. I finish off my mug.

“...Another round? We don't have to meet the ladies for at least another four hours. And worst case scenario, we'll get a car to the restaurant.”

“Yeah, sure.” I shouldn't. I know I shouldn't. I have a bad feeling he's trying to get me drunk so I'll give something away, like my intention to marry Alodia for her money, then murder her and flee back to Costa Rica. And I'm a little worried I'll end up blurting out just that in a moment of drunken frustration and he or someone else in this uptight purgatory will take me semi-seriously. But I accept a third mug, trying to nurse it a little.

“I didn't know for sure that Molly was the one for me until we'd been dating for three years.”

“Yeah, well, if you'd been in a situation like what the twelve of us went through, you probably would've known sooner. Being held prisoner by a lunatic criminal tends to make feelings clear pretty damn quick.”

“Still, it's been five years. Have you had another girlfriend in all that time?”

“A couple. Couple boyfriends, too,” I say pointedly. Alodia's told me her aunt and uncle are aware of and fully support her own sexual orientation, so I doubt they'll be put off by mine, but I want to lay as many of my cards on the table as possible so they don't have anything to use against me later.

“None of them lasted?”

“You must know what grief is like. You build walls that aren't easily knocked down. Alodia knocked down a lot of my walls in the time I knew her. When I thought I'd lost her, I built up new walls for her. Ain't no one I went to bed with who stuck around long enough to knock 'em down.” Oh, fuck me, I've somehow managed to finish my third beer, and here he's ordering another round. I'm starting to feel a little heady. “One guy came close, but didn't prove up to the task in the end. And now, six months later, the love of my life is back, and she still loves me. If I still want her and she still wants me, why shouldn't we be together?”

“Do you intend to marry her?”

Oh, fuck shit on a cockstick...what the hell kind of question is that and why do I suddenly feel so unprepared for it? The words are half out of my mouth before my brain catches up to me.

“We're already married.”

“...What.”

Classic reaction. Flat affect and everything. The expression halfway between disbelief and displeasure. I grimace, looking into my mug of foamy amber liquid. Same basic color as the Catalyst idols. Or apple juice. Probably a common substitute on film and television when an actor's character needs to drink beer for a scene. Hell, my sister once tricked me into tasting my dad's beer by telling me it was apple juice when I was a kid. Never touched apple juice again. Still like beer though. ...Where the fuck are these thoughts coming from? Oh, god, what was I talking about?

“I mean, not...legally. It was like, two days before Rourke dragged 'er off and stuck her in the tube we found 'er in. We thought we were gonna die, so our friends threw together a little ceremony for us.”

“...In prison?”

My inebriated mind races, searching for the most plausible combination of truth and bullshit I can muster. “Well, no. We'd managed to escape him and throw him off for awhile, but the way things were going, we weren't all that hopeful that we'd make it off the island. Like I said, it wasn't a legal ceremony or anything. Just a ribbon tied around our hands and speaking vows. But what the hell is legal marriage except a piece of paper and tax breaks and shit?”

“...So, you don't have any plans to legally marry her?”

I kinda get the feeling I fucked this up somewhere. “I mean...if she wants to, then yeah. Let's do it. But you know the only reason she's calling me her boyfriend and not her husband is she didn't want to freak you guys out.” Good god, McKenzie, just shut up!

But then Robert Fisher surprises me. “If you're going to be my niece's partner for the long term, whether or not you marry her, you will need a job. It's true she has a trust fund that could last her a good long while, but I don't want either of you relying on that forever. Especially if she decides to go back to school and complete her degree. So, I would like to offer you a job.”

“...I...you...what?”

“At my firm. One of my employees has a spouse whose job is transferring them out of state in two weeks. It's not anything complicated or fancy, doesn't require a law degree. It's just clerical work. But it pays well. Have you ever done anything like reception or anything administrative?”

“I...did some temp work here and there after getting off the island...”

“That's fine. We've got time to train you. We may have to get you some new clothes, too. ...But that's only if you accept the position.”

“I...well...” I pause a moment to hiccup. “...I...don't know how wise it was to ask me that when I'm verging on drunk.”

“Should I ask again tonight?”

“Yeah...please do...”

* * *

A few hours later, I've sobered up, showered, and dressed in some clothes I borrowed from Rob that he says will be appropriate for the restaurant we're dining in. He's got me in a sportcoat and tie, so I'm guessing it's someplace fancy. We don't say much on the way to the restaurant, but I do accept the job offer, which he acknowledges with a satisfied nod and a promise to take me shopping for appropriate attire tomorrow.

The restaurant is some five-star French place, elegant and classy, with a dance floor and a live string quartet. Molly and Alodia are waiting for us outside. When I see my wife, my jaw drops. Whatever they did at that spa certainly did it's job. She looks absolutely stunning, practically glowing in a glittering dusty rose evening dress. Her hair is swept up and pinned back in an elegant twist, with soft golden ringlets framing her sweet, heart-shaped face. She beams as she comes to kiss me.

“Don't you look handsome,” she murmurs. “Did you enjoy the game?”

“I sucked at it, but no one said it,” I quip. I lean over to kiss her ear and whisper. “I let slip about our symbolic wedding. Didn't give too many details.”

I can practically feel the anxiety ripple through her, but she pulls back and smiles. “It's okay,” she replies, softly but not so softly that Molly and Rob couldn't hear if they wanted to. “It was bound to come out sometime.”

I smile, reaching up and tucking a loose ringlet behind her ear. “...God, you look beautiful.” I turn, offering her my arm. “Shall we?”

Surprisingly, the subject of mine and Alodia's “symbolic” wedding doesn't come up over dinner, although Rob does announce that I've accepted the job he offered. Between dinner and dessert, we join a number of other couples on the floor to dance. They're playing a waltz, but only a few couples seem to actually be waltzing. Most of us are just wrapped up in our partners' arms, swaying gently. Alodia's arms twine around my neck and we look into each others' eyes as we move.

“You seem pretty at ease,” I remark. “I guess that trip to the spa did what it was supposed to?”

“It was really heavenly,” she admits. “Nothing wrong with a little indulgence now and then, I guess.”

“Feeling better about what's likely going to be a showy and expensive surprise tomorrow?”

“A bit, yeah. But you know what I'm really feeling good about?”

“What?”

“Being here with you.” A mischeivous smile flickers across her face and she waggles her eyebrows. “...And all the stuff I want to do to you tonight.”

“Oh, Princess, you read my mind. You don't think your folks'll let us skip dessert, do you?”

“Unfortunately not. We'll just have to make do with two helpings.” She presses close to kiss me. “Just don't lose the mood before then.”

I nuzzle her neck. She's wearing some kind of perfume, something flowery and just a little musky. She's warm in my arms, a perfect fit.

“I don't think there's a chance in hell that I'll lose the mood tonight, Princess.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Estela

I smile as I lounge on my bed with my phone on speaker. My brother is on the other end.

“So her aunt and uncle bought her a luxury car, hmm?”

“They did. They took her to the dealership so she could customize it.” There is a note of amusement in Aleister's voice. “But Diego says she's a little self-conscious about the whole affair, so if she is driving it next time we see her, we must be discreet and not make a big to-do about it. ...To be honest, I can empathize with her. When you already feel isolated, a big expensive status symbol doesn't exactly make you feel less isolated.”

I frown a little at his words. “Do you think she feels isolated?”

“Diego says she's still coming to terms with everything. She seems to be doing well, but I expect her world feels both very large and very small. The Catalysts are the only people she feels close to, and except for Jake and Diego, we're all spread out over the world.”

I am quiet a moment. “...Any other news?”

“Well, I understand Jake is going to be working for her uncle, and Diego may have found an apartment, so Rebecca McKenzie can get her life back. Meanwhile, Raj is nearly finished filming in Tokyo, and he has a notion to film a series based directly on the Catalysts now that Alodia is back with us.”

“What kind of series?”

“Well, a series of episodes for his cooking show, I imagine.”

I snort. “You know what I mean, cabrón.”

“I think he intends to explore dishes from our various home regions and ethnic backgrounds. Traditional Colombian cooking with you, for example; something Cajun or Louisiana Creole for Jake...”

“And Chinese cooking for Craig, I suppose. But what about those who might not know their ethnic background, like Alodia, or Sean, or Grace? What then? California cooking? Floridian? What's traditional fare in Washington D.C.?”

“I don't know, but Raj says it is surprising what one can discover about regional fare in a country as big and diverse as America. Key lime pie hails from Florida, doesn't it?” He doesn't wait for me to answer. “I don't think he'll have much luck in England, though. We're not really known for our cuisine. But in any case, he said regional fare was just a starting point. You know how he likes to add personal touches to everything he makes. I think he is hoping to do with regional dishes what he did with those cocktails on La Huerta.”

I chuckle. “Well, as long as he gives me time to prepare...” After a moment, I ask. “Tell me about Northbridge. What is the news there?”

“...There is not very much new to tell, I'm afraid. Silas Prescott's son, Grayson, is going to be opening his new nightclub this weekend. Craig and Zahra are going to scope it out for any possible leads on the Prism Crystal's whereabouts.”

“A nightclub? Are you sure they aren't just going to get drunk and make out?”

“That is exactly what I expect they are going to do there. ...But it's the only possible source of new information that we have right now. Zahra is still having trouble decoding the files on the Prism Gate Project.”

“Are you sure you don't want me back in Northbridge? It wouldn't be any trouble. San Trobida is quiet these days. I don't have to stay.”

“What about Andrés?” I hesitate long enough that he speaks again. “Are...things not going well between the two of you?”

“It isn't that. I enjoy being with him. Very much. It's just...by now...I had hoped to feel a little more sure of things...”

“I am sorry to hear that. ...If you want to come to Northbridge, you don't need my permission. This is your company, too. I won't discourage it either. You could probably be helpful. But just know that right now, there is no need for you to drop everything and rush up to Northbridge.”

“I understand. Tell me what else is new.”

There is not much more news that either of us could have, short as the time has been since we saw each other last. Eventually, we run out of things to say. Also, Andrés is supposed to be here soon. I reluctantly hang up and go to freshen up a bit.

* * *

Andrés is already waiting for me in the San Trobida national park when I arrive, about fifteen minutes late. I pause a moment to look at him. He is an objectively handsome man, three years my senior, with scars to match my own, which is hardly surprising given our similar histories and involvement in the resistance. He smiles at me as I approach.

“You're running late,” he admonishes without any real reproach. I smile back.

“Sorry. My brother called. I got caught up talking with him.”

He stands to meet me, kissing my cheek. “How are things with him?”

“Oh, well enough. My nephew is running him ragged as usual.” I am trying to force lightness into my voice. I don't want Andrés to pick up on my anxiety. But sometimes the man can be irritatingly perceptive. He frowns.

“What's wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“You seem...distant. Troubled.”

I could try to play it off, throw him off the trail. But he already knows how to read me, something I would find more impressive than irritating, except that I can't quite read him with the same ease.

“...You know that we found Alodia Chandler when I was last with my friends in the Caribbean?”

“Yes?”

“We're a bit concerned about her, that's all. After all she went through, she is still adjusting.”

“I see.” He gestures invitingly toward the walking path, stepping up beside me as I start down it. “Would you like to tell me about it?”

“It's...rather difficult to explain.”

“It's a big park.”

“There isn't all that much to tell, Andrés. Really. She's been locked in a stasis tube for five years and readjusting to life is just...difficult.”

I can't tell him that I'm also concerned about extradimensional crystals that might cause her problems beyond readjustment to a life she didn't even have until a few weeks ago.

“You're a good friend, to be so concerned.”

“Yes, well...she was a good friend to me. She kept me human when I had nothing but grief and rage to focus on. ...If I had met my brother before meeting her, I would not be calling him my brother now. I certainly would not have run late anywhere on account of catching up with him over the phone.”

“She sounds like quite a person.”

“She is. ...One of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. Thinking I had lost her once was devastating...” I trail off, realizing I'm on the verge of saying too much. I sigh, knowing Andrés has already picked up on that fact. For a moment, I brace myself, expecting him to press the matter. But for once, he lets it lie.

“It's a beautiful day today,” he remarks. “Perfect weather.”

“Yes,” I reply, forcing a smile. “Absolutely perfect.”

 

Diego

 

“So, what do you think?” I flip the lights on as I lead Varyyn through the one-bedroom apartment in Riverside. Naturally, I transported him here after dark, picking him up from Rebecca McKenzie's apartment in LA not long after ten. “It looks better in the daylight.”

It doesn't exactly look bad in artificial light, either. It's well-kept and high-tech, and it came with sleek, modern furnishings, which suits my situation since I don't know how long I'll be living here. Varyyn nods approvingly. “It is bigger than the flat in London. It looks very fine and comfortable.” He turns to smile at me. “Of course, my darling, I would live in a hovel if you were there with me.”

I laugh, feeling my cheeks grow warm. I move toward him, twining my arms around his neck. “How is it that you can still make me blush after so long?”

His arms slide around my waist as he pulls my hips to his. “I suppose I just know you.” He presses his mouth to mine, his tongue caressing the backs of my teeth. I inhale, sucking lightly on his tongue, savoring the taste for a moment. I let my hands fall to his chest, my fingers curling around fistfuls of his polo shirt. I chuckle.

“You know...it's still really weird to see you in clothes,” I mumble against his mouth.

“Would you prefer me out of them?” His voice is a husky purr that makes my heart race and my blood sizzle with desire.

“Always.”

“I believe the feeling is mutual.” He kisses my mouth, my cheek, my ear. “I have missed you.”

“I've missed you, too. I'm sorry if I seemed like I was neglecting you, or--” I'm cut off by a blue finger across my lips.

“Don't. Don't apologize for being where you were needed. Just because I miss you when you are gone does not mean that I expect you never to leave me on my own. Especially when it is because Alodia needs you.” He pauses, cupping my cheek in his palm. “You know that I care very deeply for her, don't you? Not only because she is your best friend, or because she is an important figure to my people. I admire her very much for who she is as a person. If you can help her, I want you to help her.”

I feel my heart swelling. Grateful tears prick my eyes. “God, Varyyn, I love you so much.”

“And I love you, my Diego.”

I smile, my hands grasping the bottom of his shirt. “Okay, seriously. Clothes look weird on you. They need to come off.”

He laughs, pulling off the shirt. Then he grasps mine. “Fair is fair, my love.”

“I suppose it is. Should we take this to the bedroom?”

“I frankly do not care where we take it.” He is undoing the button on my jeans now, kissing down my bare chest. He goes slowly to his knees, his lips leaving tingling kisses down my torso. I gasp, shivering with anticipation as he starts to lower my pants and underwear. I step out of them, my hands on his shoulders to steady myself. When his kisses sink lower, when his mouth starts to move, I feel my legs go weak. I collapse into an armchair behind me, and briefly wonder if Varyyn steered us over to it on purpose. I bury my fingers in my lover's sea-colored hair, gasping and moaning as he works at me. Sweat blooms over my skin, every muscle on my body tensing and shuddering with pleasure. Finally, gripping fistfuls of his hair, I cry out in ecstacy, going limp in the chair as he rises to kiss me.

“Well, that's one way to christen a new home,” I quip. “But I don't think it's complete until you get yours.”

“Is that so?”

I grin. “To the bedroom, husband. I've got a few surprises for you in there.”

 

Zahra

 

“Woof! Lookin' hot, Z!”

Craig eyes my cutout black club dress approvingly. I turn and arch my back, pushing my butt toward him and throwing a wink over my shoulder. “You know it. I plan to get some action here tonight.”

“Oh, yeah? With who?”

“That dude.” I jerk my head at a particularly sculpted young man with dark hair and tattoos who already has a baby-faced blond piece of man-ass pinned against the wall outside The Grand, where he appears to be chewing the boy's mouth off.

“Ten bucks I find them doing it in the men's room sometime tonight,” Craig snickers. I snort.

“Twenty bucks says they don't make it that far. My bet's on behind the bar.” I look around at the eager crowd gathered outside The Grand. A camera crew stands just a little ways off to the side, the reporter putting the last minute touches on her makeup. “...How long until opening?”

Craig glances at his watch. “Ten minutes or so, if everyone's on time. What's the deal on this place again? What are we looking for?”

“Not anything in particular. We're just here to keep an eye on Prescott's kid. He's the brains behind this place. Meanwhile, we've got Iris tapped into the city's traffic cameras. And if she sees anything noteworthy...” I grin, pulling something out of my pocket to show to him. He gasps as he recognizes the device.

“No way! The Anachronist earpieces? We still have those?”

“Yup!” I reply proudly. “Specially modified by one of R.I's own to let me talk directly to Iris. And to the untrained eye, it looks just like a fancy bluetooth device.”

“Sweet!” He holds up a hand, and I slap my palm against his. “Oh! Don't look now, but here comes a limo!”

The white stretch limosine pulls up to the curb. The crowd presses toward it, but the camera crew keeps their place at the front. The chauffeur opens the door, and a classically handsome young man with blue eyes and impeccably coiffed golden hair steps out, smiling at the crowd of reporters with the same practiced ease as Sean on a game day.

“That's gotta be Grayson Prescott,” I murmur to Craig. I raise my eyebrows as a second figure emerges from the limo and takes Grayson's arm. She's a tall drink of olive-skinned water with long waves of silky black hair, dressed in a club top that shows off a pair of exquisitely toned arms. “...And he appears to have brought Avatar Korra with him.”

“Well, if it isn't the man of the hour!” the reporter chirps. “Grayson Prescott, Northbridge's favorite billionaire heir, makes his appearance!”

Grayson chuckles. “That's quite an introduction. My friends usually stick with Grayson.”

The reporter laughs a little more loudly than necessary. “And I see you've brought a beautiful friend with you tonight. Who is this?”

The Avatar Korra lookalike smiles, blushing a little. “Hi, I'm Tahira. And I'm just here to party.”

“And if I didn't have to do this interview, I'd be right there with you,” the reporter replies, giggling. “I'm dying for a drink.”

“Uh...right on?” Tahira answers uncertainly. Grayson clears his throat.

“Why not talk about The Grand? That's why we're all here, right?”

“Of course! I understand you undertook this venture with Northbridge's resident It-boy, Kenji Katsaros. Is he here yet?”

The name immediately rings a bell. Craig elbows me as the man in question seems to materialize beside Grayson.

“If the chick is Avatar Korra, would you say that dude is Mako?”

“Kinda smiley for Mako,” I mutter back. “...He's the son of the D.A.”

“The one who's threatened to arrest all the superhumans? Including the ones fighting the bad guys?”

“The very same.”

“--Personally, I couldn't be more excited to bring this legendary establishment back to Bayside.” Grayson Prescott's voice captures my attention again. “My hope is that we can all work together to build a brighter future for this neighborhood, without sacrificing everything that makes it so special.”

But the reporter doesn't directly answer Grayson's comment. Someone else has captured her attention.

“Oh, shit...” I hiss through gritted teeth. Silas Prescott is stepping out of a sleek black car that's just pulled up to the curb. He puts on an easy smile, swaggering up to the reporter.

“Am I late?”

Just like that, Grayson, Kenji, and Grayson's hot date are apparently forgotten as the reporters swarm the city's unofficial overlord.

“Mr. Prescott! How do you feel about your son going into the nightclub business?”

“Unbelievably proud,” Prescott answers. “And really, this is only the beginning of our plans for the Bayside neighborhood. Prescott Industries is very interested in...revitalizing this neighborhood. It's been neglected for far too long, if you ask me. I've been talking to a few local real estate developers about what steps we can take to change that.”

From the look on Grayson's chiseled face, I can tell that was not what he wanted his father to say.

“Uh-oh,” I mutter to Craig. “Looks like all's not well between father and son. Don't think they're on the same page about Bayside.”

“Wonder what page Grayson's on...” He shakes his head. “Well, maybe we'll find out tonight. Come on. They're opening up.”

* * *

I gotta say, I can't fault Grayson Prescott or Kenji Katsaros when it comes to taste in nightclub décor. The thumping music and swirling colored lights, blended with the old-fashioned caberet theme kinda remind of Quarr'tel and the Anachronists. Which reminds me to switch on my earpiece.

“Hey, Iris.” I greet her casually with the intent of making the other patrons believe I'm chatting with a friend. “Can you hear me okay?”

“I can hear you quite well, Zahra. Shall I stand by?”

“Yeah, you do that. Craig and I are in the club, so we're gonna go mingle. Let me know if you find anything out.”

I will, Zahra.”

“Whaddya think, Z? Pretty sweet here, huh?”

“Definitely. Maybe I can talk Grayson Prescott into letting my band do a show here sometime. Come on, let's hit the bar. We'll be able to see more from there.”

We weave our way over to the bar and order ourselves a couple beers. The bartender cracks open two chilled brown bottles and sets them in front of us. Craig and I clink the necks of our bottles against each other and swivel around on our stools as the music fades for a moment to allow Kenji and Grayson to address the crowd from the stage. It's the obligatory opening night speech allowing the two men to pat themselves and each other on the backs. Grayson seems to have shaken off whatever chip may have been on his shoulder after his father's appearance outside the club. Or maybe he's just acting. They make a quick toast, and then we have their permission to party.

I nurse my beer, watching the crowd for awhile. I'm not exactly sure where to start here. It's not like I can just follow Grayson Prescott around all evening, but I should probably keep pretty close to him. On the other hand, I'd also like to finish my beer. I mean, Craig is already halfway through his.

“Tahira, would you like to introduce a topic of conversation?”

The name catches my attention. I turn slightly to see Grayson's date on a barstool with a glass of champagne in hand, surrounded by three people I don't recognize, but who I guess are friends of hers.

“Let's talk about Dragonness,” she suggests. “Hero? Villain? Potential role-model? Discuss.”

Her three friends blink at her. “Uh...what?”

She shrugs. “You told me to come up with something.”

I manage to cover a snicker before I turn my attention back to the other patrons, trying to pick Grayson out of the crowd. I finish my beer and stand up to make the rounds. Craig follows me patiently, not interferring except to nudge me and point out the sculpted man with the tattoos, who happens to be stumbling into the men's bathroom, still sucking the baby face off his blond piece.

“Think you might owe me ten bucks,” Craig drawls.

“Damn. I'm impressed. ...On the other hand, we don't actually know what they're doing in there...” I grin wickedly at him. He pales a little.

“What...? Oh, no. No way. I am not going to spy on them!”

“They might be getting it on in a public restroom!” I say, feigning shock. “Don't you owe it to the other patrons to break it up?”

“I think most people are gonna be too drunk to notice...”

“And what if they're not?”

“Come on, Z! Why get in the way of their party?”

“Because I'm pretty sure the management frowns on patrons getting it on in the bathroom? Okay, if you don't wanna break them up, will you at least do me the favor of getting concrete proof that they're not just holding each other's heads while they puke their guts up?”

“I told you, I don't wanna spy on them! It feels...sleazy.”

I roll my eyes, but I have to admire him a little. I know him well enough to know that his reluctance is coming from exactly where he says it is. He doesn't want to either interrupt or spy on an intimate moment between strangers. ...Still, if they're going to have sex in a public bathroom...

“Well, I've got ten bucks at stake here! I'm not paying up without proof!”

Ignoring Craig's protests, I march straight into the men's room. ...Unfortunately, I am immediately greeted by unmistakeable noises, complete with dirty talk. And through the crack in the slightly ajar stall door, I am treated to the sight of another crack as Baby Face takes Tattoos doggy-style. I have to raise an eyebrow as Baby Face growls at Tattoos to “take it all” and Tattoos pleads with his “Master” for more. ...Kinky. I really hope they used lube first... Ahh, there it is. A half-empty bottle of K-Y with its top popped, dripping a small amount onto the pristine tiles. Right next to an empty condom wrapper. I sigh and retreat, rejoining Craig.

“You win, Craiggers. At least they're being safe about it. I'll pay you later.”

He grins. “I'll let you buy the next round. Though...it looks like Grayson's getting a little hot action of his own...” He nods to where the billionaire heir is hitting the dance floor with his arm candy.

“Well. We should stick close to him. Feel like dancing?”

“You know it!”

For a little while, pressed against Craig with my eyes on his face, I almost forget to watch Grayson Prescott. Then a voice sounds in my ear.

Zahra!” Iris says. “An attack is in progress at the DA's office.”

“What?” I stop dancing, frowning.

I believe it is the superhuman known as the Man on Fire.”

“Z? What's wrong?”

I bring my mouth close to his ear. “An attack on the DA's office. Man on Fire.”

“Should we go?”

“What the heck can we do? Shouldn't we let the superhumans take care of it?”

“Well, I don't know! Aren't you supposed to be looking for more information?” He suddenly frowns, looking behind me. “...Hey...where's Avatar Korra?” I turn around to see Grayson standing on his own, sipping at a drink. A pair of women slink past me.

“Kenji Katsaros left in a hurry,” one of them announces to the other. “Saw him rushing out of here just a few minutes ago.”

“Damn,” the second woman sighs. “Wouldn't have objected to eating that eye candy awhile longer.”

“Superhumans Talos and Dragonness have just arrived on the scene.”

I frown. “On second thought, maybe we should go. Just to observe. We'll keep a safe distance, though. I don't think either of us are equipped to fight superhuman torches as we are.”

* * *

With Iris' guidance, we manage to find a place to observe the battle from a safe distance. It isn't all that easy, with most of downtown Northbridge being...well, on fire. The battle is already in full swing by the time we get there. DA Katsaros is lying on the pavement. She's still moving, but slowly. Weakly. Clearly injured. Meanwhile, Talos and Dragonness are facing off against the Man on Fire, moving together with elegance and precision that I can't help but admire. Craig whistles a little.

“Good teamwork there. Reminds me of Sean and me on the field back at Hartfeld.”

“Iris, I hope you've been recording this footage for us.”

“I have, Zahra,” Iris replies almost smugly. “And it is all being delivered to Aleister and Estela.”

“Dope. We'll just hang around long enough to make sure the DA gets to safety.” Talos is already going after her. Meanwhile, Dragonness appears to have the Man on Fire on the ropes. The flames around his body are sputtering out. “Right. They seem to have this in hand. We should get back to the--”

“Holy shit!” Craig yelps.

In the space of a brief moment, the Man on Fire has gained a second wind and gone for Dragonness with a blade made of fire protruding from his palm. But Talos has managed to get in between them, and now the time of the flame-blade is sprouting from his back. He collapses, bleeding molten bronze.

“Oh, fuck!” I grab Craig's hand. “Come on, we gotta get out of here!”

“But, what about--”

“There's nothing we can do! We gotta run!

 

Aleister

 

I stare numbly at my computer screen as the video plays out before me. Grace stands behind me, her hands on my shoulders. I don't have to look at her to picture the grim expression on her face. We've already viewed Iris' traffic-camera footage of Northbridge around the time of the attack on Meiko Katsaros. Footage that clearly revealed Kenji Katsaros transforming into Talos. When all was viewed together, it seemed quite clear that Grayson Prescott's executive assistant, Tahira Rogers, is also Dragonness. Whether or not Grayson is aware of this fact remains to be seen.

Now, I'm watching Grayson address a crowd of reporters from inside Prescott Industries' press room. His loyal assistant, as well as another Prescott Industries executive, a middle-aged woman with a fierce look about her, are beside him. Tahira expertly fields the question of why Kenji Katsaros disappeared from the opening of The Grand, never batting an eye. Then questions turn to the Prescotts' plans for the neighborhood of Bayside.

“I can't endorse my father's comments regarding Bayside,” Grayson declares. “He had discussed his plans with me earlier, and I made it very clear I wasn't on board.”

A ripple of astonishment goes through the reporters. The older woman's face twitches with barely concealed panic. But Tahira smiles serenely, looking almost proud.

“You mean to say you won't support your father's development ambitions for Bayside?”

“That's correct. The remarks he made last night do not reflect me or my business. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have nothing more to say on the subject.”

I pause the video, sighing. “Well. ...This could prove interesting.”

“I think it could be a good thing,” Grace remarks. “If Grayson is to be the future of Prescott Industries...”

“True. I just wish I knew a little more about who that assistant of his is when she isn't in front of the cameras. Tahira Rogers. Dragonness. Is she friend or foe?”

“Everything we've seen about Dragonness suggests she's on the side of right. I mean, she helped save the DA. And then she fought off those theives at the warehouse.”

“...It does seem she has good intentions,” I concede. “...That theft has me worried, though. ...Zahra and Iris have managed to work out what was stolen.”

“...What?”

“It's something they call 'liquid Prism'. Apparently, Silas Prescott has recovered the crystal.”

“...And he's learned how to process it,” she finishes grimly.

I nod. “Like my father did.”

“But...isn't liquid time crystal poisonous to humans? I thought Jake said that Uqzhaal tried to murder Alodia that way once.”

“I'm not sure this particular crystal is behaving exactly like the others. The Endless' diary said the crystal was sentient. I know she was talking about the pillar, but...perhaps the others are sentient in their own way...”

We fall silent for a moment or two, contemplating. Beside me, my phone starts to buzz. Estela is calling. I turn on the speaker.

“Hello, Estela.”

“I'm coming to Northbridge,” she declares.

“I take it you have reviewed all the new information.”

“Yes. And it seems to me it's all getting large enough that I need to be in Northbridge more than San Trobida right now.”

“I think it will come as absolutely no surprise that I agree whole-heartedly.”

 

Chapter Text

Alodia

I awaken to pain flooding my senses and hard, sun-baked stone underneath me. Images flash through my memory. Arachnid. Fiddler. Tetra. The Catalysts scattered. Jake beside me, his fearful expression, his frantic screaming as we are dragged apart. ...Falling...tumbling over a cliff...the rocks battering my body, tearing my flesh...

I'm lying on an outcropping now, a mile of sheer cliff face below me, and at least ten feet of it above me. My right wrist and my left knee are throbbing. There's a spot on my left temple that feels like it's on fire. My exposed skin stings with sunburn. I make an attempt at sitting up, crying out as my body protests. I sink back down, weeping with pain and terror.

“Alodia! Alodia!”

There's a familiar voice above me. I crane my neck, a painful effort. “...Sean...?”

He's looking down at me, eyes wide with alarm. “Alodia, hold on! Just hold on! We're coming for you!”

...We...? Before I can ask, his face disappears from view. I'm not sure how much time passes before a rope drops down in front of me. But after that, it's only moments before Estela appears, kneeling beside me on the outcropping. She cups my face in her hands.

“Can you hear me, Alodia? Are you with me?” I nod weakly, and she exhales with relief. “Good. Now, I'm sorry, I know this is going to hurt with your wrist the way it is, but I don't trust your grip at the moment.”

She holds my gaze, her dark eyes encouraging as she gently takes hold of my wrists and binds them together in front of me with another piece of rope. I can't help whimpering as the bonds pull tight, putting pressure on my injury. Estela slips her head and one arm through the loop my arms have made and grasps me around the waist, pulling me against her body.

“Okay, Sean! Pull us up!”

I try not to be dead weight as we're pulled painstakingly up the cliff face, my one elbow hooked over Estela's powerful shoulder so that I hang like a bandolier across her body. I bite my lip against the pain that comes spiking with every inch up the cliff, trying not to cry out, but the tears are blinding me by the time we reach the top and Sean cuts me loose from Estela.

A swallow of water from a canteen brings a moment of unbelieveable relief. But as I'm laid back, pain floods my senses again. Sean and Estela kneel over me, looking me over.

“The knee looks dislocated,” Estela says flatly. “The wrist might be broken. That cut on her head will need to be cleaned at least. It might need stitches, but I wouldn't trust either of us to take care of that.”

“We've got a few first aid supplies,” Sean responds softly. “At least we've got alcohol swabs and a few bandaids. That should hold her until we find Michelle or we reach Elyys'tel...”

“El-Elyys'tel...” I mutter. “No...Jake...Jake is...”

“...We know,” Sean says grimly, covering my good hand with his. “At least...we figure if he isn't with you, he must have been taken.”

“We have to find him...”

“We will.”

“We can't leave him!”

“Alodia!” Sean cups my face gently, turning me toward him. “Look at me. Look me in the eye and tell me you think I'm gonna leave him.”

Sean's dark eyes hold my own blue ones steadily, burning with intensity. I feel my heartbeat slowing to normal. Fear for Jake is still making my blood sizzle, but Sean is right. I know in my heart of hearts that he would never leave Jake in danger. I manage a weak nod, and he offers me a smile that doesn't reach his eyes.

“We just have to get you somewhere safe first, okay? There's no way we can just leave you out here alone.”

“Th-the others...?”

“I'm afraid right now it's just the three of us,” Estela says softly. She passes Sean an alcohol swab. “Here. We need to get her head cleaned up a little before we move on. We don't need infection setting in.”

Sean keeps me looking at his face, speaking encouragingly to me as he dabs at the gash above my eye. I wince at the sting, but I manage not to cry out. But I can't quite hold in a whimper when, after I've been cleaned and bandaged, he lifts me into his arms and I feel invisible knives driven into me all over my body.

“I'm sorry,” he murmurs. “I wish we had something to give you for the pain...”

A sharp click makes him freeze. I feel his grip on me tighten, and I crane my neck to look. My belly goes cold. Five Arachnid soldiers impede our path, their rifles trained on us.

“Your friend there looks pretty bad off,” the one in front says. “You come quietly, maybe Mr. Rourke'll see fit to fix 'er up. If not, someone else is gonna get hurt.”

“I don't think you understand how this works,” Estela replies coldly. “None of your filthy ilk will ever touch this girl without paying for it with your lives. Now, if any of you are willing to tell me where Jake and any of our other friends you may have hostage are, you'll leave here relatively intact. If not, you're useless.”

When the soldiers laugh at her speech, Sean clicks his tongue, shaking his head. “You'd think they never met this woman.”

“They're about to meet me,” Estela snaps. “Oh, and Sean? Try not to be stupid and stubborn just now. Whatever happens, you currently have Alodia in your arms, which means you're responsible for getting her somewhere safe.”

With that, Estela throws herself at the troops. Sean only hesitates a moment before taking off with me. I struggle weakly in his arms.

“Estela!”

“She's okay! She's right! I have to get you somewhere safe!”

We crash through the jungle, Sean hugging me close to his body. I let myself hide my face in his chest. I can't run anywhere with my knee like it is, and I'm feeling too heady to try anyway. Then, I hear Estela's voice and my heart lifts.

“Took out three!” she declares from somewhere on Sean's right. “There's two left, so keep an eye—Sean, look out!”

I feel Sean turn sharply, hunkering over me. There is a sharp crack, and then I'm tumbling to the jungle floor, Sean slumping over me. Every cell in my body turns to ice as I start to make out the sound of him choking, gurgling...as I start to feel the warm blood spilling over me...

 

Sean

 

Michelle's alarm goes off at five in the morning. It's a soft, gentle tone, but it's enough to wake me. She didn't get off work until ten the night before, but she turns off her phone and valiantly pushes herself upright. As she sits with her legs dangling over the edge of the bed, yawning, I roll over an prop myself up on my elbow, reaching out to stroke her shoulder.

“Good morning, sweetie.”

She rubs at one eye, turning a weary smile on me. “Go back to sleep, Sean. It's off season.”

“Not for you.” I push back the covers and stand up to circle around to her side of the bed and take her hands. “Come on. I'll make you breakfast while you shower.”

She lets me tug her to her feet and into my arms, but she grumbles as she wraps her arms around my neck. “Come on, Sean. You waited up for me until eleven last night. You need more sleep.”

“Maybe. But unlike you, I can catch a few more hours after breakfast. You have another long shift ahead of you, and I'm not letting you face it without a proper meal.”

“Oh, fine. It's hard to argue when you're being wonderful.”

“I know. It's my secret weapon.” I give her a quick kiss. “Meet you in the kitchen.”

Michelle showers and dresses while I put the coffee on and prepare two bowls of oatmeal, apples, blueberries, raisins, and cinnamon for her, and plain butter and salt for me. I've just finished laying the table when she emerges, running a comb through her damp blonde hair. It's been awhile since she last dyed it, and its natural black color is showing at the roots. I study her for a moment, smiling.

“Ever think about letting the dyed hair grow out and going back to black?”

“From time to time. It might be easier to maintain on my current schedule. Why, do you think I should?”

“I think it's your head and you should ultimately do what pleases you,” I reply. “You'll look beautiful either way. But I am a little curious how you'd look with dark hair. You've been blonde the whole time I've known you.”

She sits down at the table, grinning. “Think I could pull off a streaked undercut like Zahra used to have?”

I laugh. “You'd be the most punk intern at the hospital.”

She chuckles. “Nah. I've had my hair short before. I liked the way it looked okay, but I've always liked it so much better long. But maybe it is time for a change. If I don't like it once I grow it out, I can always dye it again.”

I smile at her as I start on my breakfast. If someone had told me five years ago that I would be sitting at the breakfast table with Michelle Nguyen, discussing her hair style and watching my engagement ring sparkle on a chain around her neck, I wouldn't have believed it. Honestly, I wouldn't really have believed it four years ago. It took awhile for things to stop being awkward between us. Not a day goes by that I don't think about how I almost lost her thanks to my own pride and stubbornness—or how lucky I am to have her now.

My phone startles me when it starts buzzing. I glance at the screen, frowning. “...It's Alodia.”

Michelle's eyes betray alarm. “...It's two-thirty in the morning on the west coast.”

I answer quickly, putting the phone to my ear. “Alodia? What's going on?”

...Sean...?” Her voice quivers as it comes down the line. “...I'm sorry to call so early...

“It's earlier for you than it is for us. Michelle and I are already up. Are you okay?”

She is quiet for a moment. “It feels a little silly to say it out loud...but...I had a bad dream...”

Jake's voice joins hers. “Calling was my idea, so you can blame me.”

I dreamed about you dying on La Huerta...I...”

“Oh...I think I understand. ...Hey, Michelle is sitting at the table with me, and I think your call has her pretty worried, so I'm gonna put you on speaker...”

“...Okay...”

I thumb on the speaker and set the phone on the table between us.

“Hey, Alodia,” Michelle says, trying and failing to keep the concern from her voice. “Is everything okay?”

Well...yes...sort of. ...I had a dream about Sean dying on La Huerta, and I just couldn't shake it...so Jake suggested I call him just to reassure myself and...saying it out loud once made me feel silly, and now I've said it again, and I feel utterly ridiculous.”

Michelle visibly sags with relief. “Totally okay, sweetie. Just glad no one's actually hurt.”

“...Is everyone doing okay over on your coast?”

“We're all fine here,” I assure her. “You want me to get Quinn? She'll still be asleep, but I'm sure if I tell her you're calling, she won't mind waking up to say hello.”

No, that's okay. I...should let Jake get back to sleep. He'll be up early for work, and I've got dance classes all day.”

“Speaking of work, I need to be getting out the door. Alodia, Jake, love to you both.” Michelle stands and comes around the table to kiss me as she gathers her purse up. “And extra love to you, Sean. I'm on call tonight, so don't wait up.”

“Love you,” I reply. “You show 'em what you're made of, Super Doc.”

Bye, Michelle,” Alodia says. “Love you.”

I wait until I hear her leave before I turn my attention back to Alodia. “You think you might be able to get some sleep now?”

“Probably.” She chuckles. “Jake's already asleep. ...I'm afraid I've been keeping him up at night...”

“In a good, sexy way? Or...” I feel myself frowning. “...Have you been having a lot of these bad dreams?”

...It's...not...

“...Not what?”

“Not...important.”

“...You don't have to tell me if you don't want to. But please don't tell me it's not important. It's got you calling me at what is for you two-thirty in the morning.”

Okay...it's important. But...”

“Are you telling Jake, at least? Or Diego?”

Jake knows. Like I said, I've been keeping him up at night. I've told Diego some of it, but not every detail.

I am quiet a moment. “...Are they worried?”

She makes a noise that sounds frustrated. “They're worried about me...”

I have to take a moment to process that statement. “...What are you worried about?” There is a long stretch of silence. I hear the squeak of bedsprings, footsteps, and sound of a door opening and closing. More footsteps. “...Alodia? Are you still there?”

“I'm here,” she says softly. “...Sean...do you guys still need me?”

Something in the question makes my pulse quicken in a way that feels like a warning. “Wh-what do you mean?”

I have a past now. I was born to human parents. I have human guardians. I spent my childhood in Riverside. ...But I can't make myself forget the fact that I was originally willed into being as...as the phsyical manifestation of everything eleven people and one alien needed me to be. To be the best friend Diego needed all his life. To be someone Raj could show every side of himself to. I thought...I thought when I gave myself back to Vaanu that it was the end for me. That I had fulfilled my purpose. As much as I wanted to come back...now that I'm here, I...” She chokes a little. “You eleven are my whole world. You're everything to me. And most of you are thriving and successful and happy and...I just wonder...maybe I wasn't meant to come back. Maybe this is a cosmic mistake...”

“...Alodia...”

...I can't talk to Jake or Diego about this. It would scare them too much to hear me talk like this. Especially Jake.

“Yeah, I can imagine it would scare him. ...It's scaring me a little.”

...Sorry.

“Don't apologize. I get it actually. More than you might think.”

“You do...?”

“Yeah. I mean...how many times on the island did you or anyone else have to tell me to stop being the hero? All my life, I had it half told to me, half built it up in my head that I had to protect everyone. That I had to carry all the weight myself, because I was the only one who could. ...Isn't that kinda what you ended up being told when it came down to it?”

...I'm...not sure I follow.

“When you learned what you were. How you came into existence. Even if it didn't use these exact words, Vaanu basically told you that your whole purpose was to protect the rest of us. To keep us safe and get us home again. And you were the only one who could do it.”

I was the only one who could--

“Bear with me a moment. I've got a point, I promise. The point is that I know how scary it is when you think you have to bear all the weight yourself to see other people taking it on. Hell, I was recovering from a gunshot wound, and you and Michelle still had to hold me down and force me to rest because I was so terrified of being useless. Maybe it's all on a much smaller scale, but I get where these fears are coming from. And let me assure you right now that just because we're thriving thanks to the lessons and strengths you taught us doesn't mean we don't still need you.”

“...Really?”

“You know how Michelle wants to be a neurosurgeon. She's always studying the brain and babbling on at me about how fascinating it is. And it really is, even if I only understand about a quarter of what she tells me. One thing that's kinda sorta sunk in is the brain's ability to recreate damaged pathways. After injury or surgery or a stroke, the brain can regain a great deal of function by rewiring itself to cope with the loss of tissue. It can relearn how to walk and talk and do math...all kinds of things. Thing is, though, it's not repairing itself. It can't. It's not like skin or muscle or bone that can regrow. It can't undo the damage, it just learns to cope.”

I'm gathering that you're making an analogy here. ...Who are you casting as the brain?”

“Us. The Catalysts. Twelve of us together, we're a fully functioning brain. You give yourself back to Vaanu, that's some kind of brain damage. Over time, we all learned to cope without you. Some better than others. We took what you gave us as we rewired our Catalyst brain and learned to go on without you. But we were never going to stop feeling the damage. We were never going to be as strong without you as we are with you.”

“...But if the brain can't repair itself...what am I doing back here?”

“Okay, it's not a perfect metaphor. No metaphor is perfect. Look...maybe whether or not we need you isn't what you should be focusing on. Isn't it enough that we want you? Isn't the fact that the universe has given you a family and a history outside of the island enough proof that this isn't a mistake?”

She is quiet for a long time. “...Thank you, Sean.”

“Hey, I didn't say anything that wasn't true. We're your friends. We love you. ...You know, it's because of you that I've got my career.”

I didn't teach you to play football.

“No, but because of you, I was able to let go of the baggage I'd built up around it. Because of you...football became fun again. Because of you, I remembered how much I love the game. So much of my life is better because of you. ...I wouldn't have Michelle now if it weren't for you.”

“...I don't know what was between you at the time you broke up that made you believe her friends over her. ...But I know that when I first knew you, you were both too proud and stubborn to make things right. Neither of you were willing to be vulnerable to each other. You were both too focused on protecting yourselves to let your guard down.”

“I think that about sums us up at the time, yeah. That may have ultimately been what led to the break-up in the first place. If she had let herself trust me more, she would have told me when she found out what her sorority sisters had done. ...And if I had let myself trust her, I would have smelled a rat sooner. But I guess we were both waiting to be betrayed.”

It was the wrong time for you to be together. But the two of you are right for each other. You just needed some help getting there.”

“And that's why you came to us,” I conclude. “...Hey. Your new purpose is going to reveal itself in time. In the meantime, I hope you don't doubt how much your family loves you. ...Particularly your husband. ...Don't make the mistake of trying to protect him if something like this is bothering you, okay? He's gonna know when you're hiding something, and his mind is gonna torture him with possibilities unless you're honest with him.”

“...I...”

“Trust me on that, Alodia.”

I just don't want him thinking that I don't want to be with him. ...Even for a moment...”

“Do you trust him?”

Yes, of course.”

“...The thought might cross his mind for a moment. That doesn't mean he'd seriously believe it. It just means he's human. Look, we all know how hard it was after we lost you. I don't blame you for worrying that he's going to panic if you tell him that you're worried your coming back is a cosmic mistake. But I know him well enough to tell you with confidence that he'll want to know if you're troubled by anything at all.”

“You're probably right.”

“The same goes for Diego.”

She chuckles. “Thanks, Sean...for staying up to talk to me.”

“I was already up. You're the one staying up. Besides, you're my friend. And I'm here if you need someone to talk to. ...Think you can go back to sleep now?”

Yeah. I think so. ...Love you, Sean. My love to Quinn, too, when she wakes up.”

“We all love you, too, Alodia.”

 

Estela

 

I haven't been back in Northbridge for longer than ten days before it's the night of the Prescott Industries Masquerade, an annual event that gives Silas Prescott the opportunity to meet with his investors. Except for the guest list it is generally ignored by Rourke International. But not this year. With everything else surrounding Prescott Industries, we can't afford to ignore them. Besides, it has been widely advertised that Prescott means to show off some pieces from his 'personal collection' of artifacts from his travels with his wife. There is enough of a chance that something in that collection will be from La Huerta to warrant a look.

“Do I really have to wear this thing?” Craig whines, looking distastefully at the black leather eyemask Zahra has laid out for him.

“It's a masquerade, Craig! Of course you have to wear a mask!”

“Yeah, but why this one?! I'm gonna look like Tuxedo Mask in this! Why couldn't I get a cool Vaanti-style mask instead?”

“Because Rosencraft and Sons has been out of business since the twenties.” When Craig sighs tragically and sets his face in a pout, Zahra bursts out laughing. “Relax, Craiggers! I'm totally trolling you! That's a cheap costume-shop mask! Not the kind of thing you wear to a Prescott Industries event! No, Grace sent proper attire for all of us. Catalyst theme. Between us, Aleister says she went a little overboard. All twelve of us now have a masquerade ball costume based on our Hadean zodiac sign.”

She disappears briefly into the bedroom, reappearing with three garment boxes, passing one to me and one to Craig before sitting down and opening the third. In mine, I find an elegant gold mask with a shape and a scale-like pattern clearly meant to invoke the face of a dragon, topped with ornate gold horns. The evening gown is flame-colored, red-gold with a skirt that flutters. I can't help chuckling.

“What do you think, did part of the inspiration for this come from the Katniss Everdeen costume?”

“Probably,” Zahra concedes with a grin. “Careful when you twirl.”

“Now, see this is more what I was thinking,” Craig declares, holding up the brown-furred half-mask that pushes forward into a bear's snout. “Whaddya got, Z?”

Zahra holds a black evening gown trimmed with feathers up to her body, and shows off the black mask that comes with it, an ornate, abbreviated version of an old European plague mask. She grins.

“I'm gonna look sick in this!”

“It's awfully nice of Grace to supply the outfits. But if she did actually buy twelve costumes and masks, I have to agree she may have gone overboard. I suppose they can afford it, but I don't know when we'll ever get use out of them after tonight.”

“Maybe she's hoping the next reunion will be masquerade-themed,” Zahra replies with a shrug. “Heck, maybe she's pregnant again and this was a hormone-fueled shopping spree. Whatever the reason, we need to get dressed. Showtime's in two hours and counting.”

Ninety minutes later, I am looking myself over in the full-length mirror. The dress is a perfect fit, and the mask is ornate enough to disguise the scar over my eye, a necessity since the distinctive mark makes me easy to recognize, and I have been in the spotlight quite a lot over the last five years as one of Rourke International's C.E.O's, and I would not exactly be welcome at a party for Prescott Industries' investors.

“So what's our cover story?” Craig asks, adjusting his tie.

“Here's the invitation I printed up for us.” Zahra shows him the card. “I'm Sara Ayari, a representative of Mansingh Transglobal, and you're Kevin Lim. My plus one.”

“So, I'm arm candy?”

“Of course,” she replies affectionately, kissing the top of his head. “That's what you always are.”

“What about Estela?”

“I get to be arm candy for someone else,” I reply. Not twenty seconds later, the door buzzes. “Well, speak of the devil. There's my date, I think.”

I follow Zahra as she goes to answer the door. Sure enough, Quinn is standing outside in a sea green mermaid dress with a matching ocean-themed mask decorated with seashells and blue-green feathers that look like sprays of water. The strapless gown hugs the delicate curves of her body sensuously, and her copper hair, swept off her face in an elegant twist, gleams even in the artificial light in the hall.

“Wow, Quinn. You look...incredible.”

“So do you,” she replies, looking me up and down approvingly. With a wink, she adds, “...'Darling'. And please. Call me Brianna.”

She shows me the invitation. She is listed as Brianna McKenna, a representative of the Kelly Foundation, and I am her plus-one, Remedios Mendoza.

“The story is that the Kelly Foundation is hoping to gain a sponsorship from Prescott Industries. The Kelly family has heard about the Prescotts' devotion to philanthropy.”

“Remember, Grayson Prescott is gonna be the one to talk to about that,” Zahra says. “He's the one who actually seems interested in bettering humankind.”

“Does it matter, if we're not actually looking for a sponsorship?” I ask. “Even if he isn't genuinely interested, I imagine Silas Prescott will be willing to fake it. And from what Aleister has told me, he is the one to keep our eyes on. The Prism Gate is the father's project, not the son's.”

“It's probably smart to cover both of them, if we can,” Zahra replies. “And any superhumans who happen to show themselves.”

“You're talking about Kenji Katsaros and Tahira Rogers.”

“Bingo. Here, Estela. Take one of the earpieces. We'll have to make like we don't know each other while we're there, so this is gonna be the easiest way to communicate. We should make an effort to arrive separately, too.”

“Right. Quinn and I will leave now. You two follow in say...ten minutes?”

She nods. “Take the most direct route. Craig and I will loop around so we arrive from opposite directions. Good luck, everyone.”

* * *

We take Quinn's car downtown, following Zahra's instruction to take the most direct route. Traffic gets heavier as we approach Prescott Industries.

“Do you think we're going to find anything of interest here tonight?” Quinn asks.

“I don't know. It is difficult to know where we should be looking. The only real lead we have is Precott Industries itself. But something tells me Silas Prescott's nose isn't as clean as it appears from the outside.”

“I think I have to agree with you there.” She glances briefly at me before turning her attention back to the road. “Are you all right? Being back in Northbridge so soon? I'm sure you'd rather be in San Trobida with your uncle and your young man.”

“My 'young man'?” I echo with amusement. “Why not just call him my 'beau'?”

“Was he okay with you coming back so soon?”

“Being okay with it was Hobson's choice,” I answer firmly. “I gave him no say in the matter after all. ...I'm needed in Northbridge right now. So here I am. Besides, it's not like I'm lonely up here. I have you and Craig and Zahra and Sean and Michelle. And possibly Aleister and Grace and Reggie soon if they can manage to get away from London.”

“...I just wish the circumstances weren't so troubling.”

I sigh. “Me too. Even beyond worry over what the Prism Crystal and the appearance of superhumans means for Alodia, now there's liquid prism on the streets...I wish I knew what more we could be doing besides just spying.”

“Perhaps we'll discover that the superheroes have things in hand...”

“I trust them to handle the superhuman villains. But the fact that the crystal came from La Huerta...the fact that it brought Alodia back...the fact that Rourke is still alive...all that has me extremely nervous.”

“You're not the only one,” she admits.

Arriving at Prescott Industries, we turn the car over to the valet. Quinn takes my arm, and I let her lead me inside. Our forged invitation raises no eyebrows, and we're admitted without a second look. The grand ballroom at Prescott Industries is already crowded with masked guests and security personnel. The space is artfully decorated, and on the dais at the back, red velvet ropes keep the crowd a safe distance from rows of glass display cases. I'm not yet close enough to see their contents. I slip the Anachronist earpiece into my ear.

“Hey, we're here.”

Sweet,” Zahra replies. “We'll be there in about fifteen minutes.

I relay this to Quinn, who nods. “We should try to mingle a little. It will help us work our way over to the display for a better look.”

We accept flutes of champagne from the waitstaff and make small talk with a few of the guests as we casually drift towards the dais.

“We're here,” Zahra informs me at one point. “Not a moment too soon, looks like. Prescott's about to make a speech, I think.”

Sure enough, Silas Prescott, conspicuously unmasked, is stepping up onto the dais. He taps the microphone on the podium. Quinn and I worm our way toward the front of the crowd as discreetly as possible as the hum of conversation rapidly fades.

“Thank you all for joining me tonight,” Silas Prescott says with a practiced smile. “You'll have to forgive my lack of a disguise. I didn't want our favorite DA to arrest me on sight.”

He sends a wink at DA Katsaros as the crowd chuckle. Quinn laughs politely beside me, and I force myself to release a breath of a chuckle, willing my eyes not to roll. Prescott continues:

“In all seriousness, I can't say how relieved I am to see you safe and sound, DA Katsaros.” The DA smiles placidly, nodding her thanks. A pensive look crosses Prescott's face. “My late wife Helena took immense pride in the pieces we collected in our travels. It would have thrilled her to share this collection with all of you.”

As Quinn and I finally gain a vantage point with a clear line of sight, Prescott moves to touch one of the glass displays. As the piece inside becomes clear, I feel my blood run cold. Quinn inhales sharply, gripping my arm painfully tight.

“Oh, my God...”

It is a small statue of gleaming amber, in the likeness of a dancing ballerina wearing a gown of feathers. ...The Cygnus idol.

My mouth is dry. My hand trembles as I lift it to press a button on my earpiece. “...Are you seeing what I'm seeing?” I murmur.

You mean Grace's Catalyst idol? Yeah. Yeah, I am...”

“This one gave her particular joy,” Prescott is saying, looking down at the idol with a nostalgic gleam in his eye. “She said it reminded her that there was more to this world than we could ever hope to understand. And it would have seriously pissed her off if I gave a long-winded speech. So here's to her, and to all of you. May you all find what you treasure. Now drink up. Enjoy the evening. But remember, just because you're wearing a mask doesn't mean you can get away with everything. Just most things.”

Everyone raises their glasses in a toast. Quinn and I meanwhile have edged away from the crowd.

“That's not possible, is it?” Zahra whispers. “Alodia said the idols were melted when she passed the test at the Threshold...”

“Remember where we found that one, though.” I look at Quinn. “...It was when we were first seeking the Island's Heart. To save you. It was in a space between dimensions. We found Grace's idol in that space. Sometime during the Three Tribes' War, Varyyn's father hid it to keep it safe from the warring tribes. ...If we acquired Grace's idol from the past, there may have been another version somewhere for Prescott to find.”

“...Okay. I'm gonna see if I can corner Prescott. We need to know if there might be more of the idols out here. You two cover the heir.”

“We're on it.” I turn to Quinn. “Our task is to talk to Grayson Prescott.”

“Right. Let me do the introductions. I'm the one who's here as a representative of the Kelly Foundation after all.”

“Of course.”

We patiently wait our turn in the crowd surrounding Prescott's crown prince. Well, Quinn waits patiently. I wait very impatiently, huffing and tapping my foot.

“Easy, darling,” Quinn says mildly. “You're drawing attention to us.”

I grunt in annoyance, but I do make a cursory attempt at settling down. Finally, Grayson Prescott turns his attention onto us.

“Good evening, ladies. I hope you're enjoying yourselves.”

“Oh, it's been a lovely evening so far. I just wanted to come over and introduce myself.” Quinn smiles brightly, holding out her hand. “My name is Brianna McKenna, and this is my partner, Remedios Mendoza. I'm here on behalf of the Kelly Foundation.”

Grayson's eyes light a little. “The same Kelly Foundation that funds research on rare genetic illnesses?”

“The very same. Our main mission is to fund research into illnesses that are too rare to be noticed or funded any other way. We also have a portion of funds set aside to assist patients and their families. Especially where young children are involved.”

“A very noble cause,” he says approvingly. “Are you here to explore a possible source of funds?”

I see Quinn's mask shift slightly as she lifts an eyebrow. “Straight to the point, I see?”

Grayson has the decency to blush. “Forgive me if I seem over-eager. But as I said, I feel the cause is a very noble one.”

“Then, you might have a mind to support it?”

“Absolutely. You must know Prescott Industries' commitment to philanthropy.”

“Yes, yes I know very well.”

I clear my throat softly, feeling my impatience return. I plaster a smile on my face. “Darling, before you get into talking shop, I just wanted to ask...do you know much about the pieces in your father's collection?”

“Well, I...I know a little. Why?”

“Oh, it's just a stunning collection, that's all. And I have always been fascinated by ancient things. That piece your father pointed out in particular...the...little ballerina statue?”

He chuckles. “Well, I'm not sure it would be entirely accurate to call it a ballerina. Not sure how many ballerinas there were in the ancient Caribbean.”

“Caribbean?”

“Yes. That particular piece comes from a small island in the Caribbean. I forget which one, I'm afraid.”

“Do you know what it is?”

“Well, my father always assumed it was either a toy, or some kind of idol. My mother was researching it before she died, but I don't think she ever figured out what its true purpose was.” He turns back to Quinn, smiling. “Now, regarding a possible financial relationship between the Kelly Foundation and Prescott Industries...”

 

Quinn

 

It's a good thing Estela remembered to ask about the idol, because for a few minutes, I almost forget that securing a sponsorship is part of my cover story, not my actual goal. Really, there isn't any harm in networking a little while I'm here. And Grayson actually seems genuinely interested, so once Estela has gotten as much out of him as seems possible on that score, I happily launch into my practiced pitch. Then someone else catches his eye, an olive-skinned woman in a butterfly mask. The way his face lights up is difficult to mistake, so I leave him to it. That's when I start to notice Estela's distraction. She frowns, glancing over her shoulder.

“Are you okay?”

“I...I don't know. I...feel like someone's watching us...”

“Let's move a little closer to the hors d'oeuvres. We'll be closer to Silas Prescott that way, and—”

“Take this,” Estela mutters, pulling the earpiece out of her ear. Before I can react, she grasps my wrist and presses it into my palm, curling my fingers around it. Then she turns and pushes into the crowd.

“Wait, what?! Es—Remedios, where are you going?!” I groan, stuffing the piece into my ear. “Hey, guys...my date just ran off into the crowd...”

Uh...what?

“Don't ask me why, I couldn't tell you. But I have to chase her down now. I'll check in when I've found her.”

Of course, I know I'm not actually going to catch Estela until she's ready to be caught. The woman runs like the wind and navigates the crowd like a trickle of water around boulders. I'm going to tire long before she does, and in the meantime, I'll lose a good deal of ground fighting past the crowds. Then, quite suddenly, I have an entirely new problem as every light in the building shuts off at once, plunging me and everyone else into darkness so deep that I can't even see my hands. A dull roar of panicked murmuring sets up around me, growing rapidly louder.

What the fuck?!” Zahra shrieks in my ear, making me wince.

“Zahra? What's wrong?!”

“I can't move! Well, I can, but it's like I'm stuck in slo-mo! Craig, too!”

I'm starting to feel panicky. “Estela!” I scream. “Estela, where are you!”

A sudden shaft of light at one end of the room tells me where the door is. I grope blindly through the crowd until my hands hit a wall. Still calling for Estela, I slowly make my way along the wall to the door.

Outside, a squad of police cars are swarming the street in front of the building, lights flashing. DA Katsaros talks with a few of the officers in low voices. Other guests start to stumble out around me, and that's when I see her. Estela, her flame-colored gown fluttering in the warm night breeze, stands off to the side, staring down the street.

“Estela!” I rush over to her. “What are you doing?! Are you okay?!”

She doesn't immediately answer. Her expression is dazed, her eyes bewildered. The sound of footsteps makes me turn. Craig and Zahra are running over to us.

“Hot damn, it feels good to move at full speed again!” Craig cries. “Who the hell drank the Elyys'tel tree sap that they could put us into slo-mo like that?!”

“It wasn't the tree sap, doofus,” Zahra grumbles. “It was another superhuman who got their powers from the crystal. Oh, and Estela? What the hell got into you?! You just ran off on Quinn without explaining yourself?!”

Estela slowly turns to look at us. Her dark eyes are shimmering with unshed tears.

“...I saw her,” she whispers. “...I saw my mother.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Alodia

Sickness rolls violently through my midsection. I recoil, my hands flying to my mouth. On either side of me, Jake and Diego press in close, offering comfort and support, but they can't hold me tightly enough to stop me from trembling at the image on the computer screen in front of me. It's an unpolished photograph, taken with the camera on Zahra's phone, but the subject is clear. It's the Cygnus idol. Plain as day. At the Threshold, I watched it melt into a puddle of molten amber and blood, but here is photographic proof that it wasn't completely destroyed.

“Let's click away from that, shall we?” Jake murmurs, mercifully minimizing the image and restoring the video chat window to the screen. Grace and Aleister share one video feed. Zahra, Craig, Quinn, and Estela are together on the second. Raj is on a third feed, and Sean on a fourth. Michelle is still at the hospital, but Sean has promised to fill her in. And in Riverside, Jake and I have gathered with Varyyn and Diego in their living room.

“I...probably should have given you a little more warning,” Aleister mumbles, looking guilty. “I apologize.”

I shake my head, swallowing against the taste of bile in my throat. “N-never mind. So...your father's rival has one of the Catalyst idols. It...makes sense that it would be that one, considering where we found the Cygnus idol in the last loop.”

“That's what we all thought, too,” Zahra agrees. “But...actually, Silas Prescott doesn't have it anymore. It was stolen at the masquerade. I'm guessing whoever took it is looking to fence it.”

“Fence a Catalyst idol?” Varyyn shifts uncomfortably at the idea.

“It's not really a Catalyst idol out here, Varyyn,” I reply softly. “It's just a pretty amber statue. It only meant anything as a clue left by the Endless to guide me to the Threshold.”

“So, you don't think it still has any powers?” Raj asks.

“The only powers the idols ever had was a psychic link between me, the Endless, and whichever Catalyst it represented. I...suppose there is always a chance it could still give me visions if Grace and I touched it at the same time, but it isn't as if anyone out here could make use of it.”

“Perhaps,” Aleister concedes. “But I still don't like the idea of a Catalyst idol floating around out there among the masses. I would rather have it back in our hands. Or return it to the Vaanti.”

“There is an uncomfortable vibe around the whole idea of some rich old white guy keeping Vaanti artifacts for himself,” Raj agrees.

In spite of myself, I chuckle. “Even though the artifact was ultimately forged at the command of an old white woman in a spacesuit?”

“...By a race of super-evolved humans descended from a rich white woman and her groom of likely mixed ancestry?” Diego adds.

“Oh, knock it off. You know what I mean.”

“Yeah,” I admit, feeling my momentary humor evaporate. “And honestly, I agree. The Endless commissioned those idols and infused them with the blood of the people she loved most to forge a psychic link with me so that I could protect you all. Even if the Vaanti wouldn't consider them sacred anymore, it isn't appropriate to treat them like curiosities or toys to buy and sell.”

“Do you think we should go looking for the idol?”

That makes me pause a moment. “...Do...do you have any idea where to start?”

“Well...no...”

“And the idol isn't the only thing we discovered at the masquerade, either,” Quinn adds.

“What do you mean.”

“...You were right, Alodia,” Estela says softly. “...My mother is alive.”

A shocked silence descends, unbroken for almost a full minute. Finally Sean asks, “...Are you sure?”

“I saw her. She was at the masquerade, and she was dressed like Flora Sullivan on her wedding day. She lifted her mask and looked straight at me. I had her in my sight for a solid minute before the lights went out. I managed to trail her outside, and I saw her running off down the street, but that's where I lost her.” She pauses. “...She wasn't a hallucination. I went back the next morning, and I found her mask in the hedge outside Prescott Industries.”

“I believe you,” I assure her. “Of course I believe you. I was actively trying to bring her back as I gave myself back to Vaanu. But...why would she only appear now...?”

“I don't know. But I think she left the mask for me to find. ...I think she wants me to know she's here, but for some reason, she isn't able to speak to me yet.”

“Maybe...for the time being, we should let the business with the idol lie,” I say softly. “And concentrate on finding Olivia.”

“My mom won't be found until she wants to be found,” Estela murmurs.

“Neither will the idol, come to that,” I sigh. “But...maybe...if Grace were in Northbridge...”

“Maybe...” Grace agrees slowly. “That is...if my psychic link to the idol is still functional...”

“But...maybe I have to be there, too...”

“You think so?”

“I think she does have to be there,” Diego chimes in. “As I recall, the Canis idol ended up being right under our noses in the Valley of Tombs. ...But in the six months I was living with the Vaanti, I couldn't find it until Allie showed up.”

“That would make sense,” Varyyn says thoughtfully. “The psychic link was surely not between Catalyst and idol, but between Catalyst and Endless.”

“Exactly. I expect the idols were basically like batteries that powered the psychic link.”

“And they required that the circuit be closed before they would work,” Aleister finishes.

“So...the Catalyst is...or was...the cathode and Alodia was the anode?” Grace asks.

“Something like that.”

“...I only ever got visions from the idols when I touched them at the same time as their Catalyst.”

“Lending further credence to the cathode/anode theory.”

I hesitate, shifting uncomfortably. “I...don't know how easy it's going to be for me to drop everything and come to Northbridge...”

“That doesn't seem like it's necessary right now, does it?” Jake asks. “I mean, what do we even do with the idol once we get our hands on it? It's actual purpose is kinda moot, isn't it?”

“Maybe, but the fact that it still exists is significant,” Aleister replies. He sighs. “Listen, Alodia. Do not panic. Not yet. And do not drop everything and rush across America. Though...I think it is about time I made the trip to Northbridge. It is Grace's choice whether she wants to come alo--”

“Of course I'm coming, silly! You aren't leaving Reggie and me alone in London!”

He laughs. “Very well, my dear. How about this: Grace and I will make the arrangements and we'll make contact when we arrive in Northbridge. Does that sound all right?”

“...I suppose,” I reply, my uncertainty surely reflected in my voice. Jake rubs my back soothingly. In her window, I see Quinn's hand drift to the side of the screen, as if touching the computer is a way of physically touching me.

“Hang in there, Alodia,” she says. “I know this is all scary, but we've got your back.”

“Just...promise me you won't keep anything from me. I know I'm on the other side of the country, but...”

“We won't keep you in the dark,” Estela promises. Everyone reluctantly says their goodbyes, and then Diego closes his laptop. For a moment, I sit numbly on the couch, processing everything I've just learned. I rise and make my way to the balcony, slipping out into the daylight. It's summer in southern California, and the air is typically hot and dry. Nothing like the muggy, suffocating heat of La Huerta's tropical zone. The dry heat has its own dangers, though. I have memories of droughts and wildfires dominating the news during the summers of my childhood, though thankfully they never got close enough to me and Diego to shatter our childish illusion of security. I never had that illusion in my other existence.

I hear the door open behind me. Jake wanders out to stand beside me.

“Hey...you okay?”

I don't answer immediately. I look out over the parking lot below us, beyond it to the city of Riverside. Then as helpless fury grips me, I kick wildly at the railing around the balcony.

“Fuck!” I snarl. “Goddammit! I just want to live my life! Is that really so much to ask?!”

“There's no reason to think this gonna interfere with your life,” Jake says softly.

“No, Jake, there is every reason to think so! The Catalyst idols were supposed to have been destroyed when I broke the cycle! The time crystals were supposed to have gone back with Vaanu when I gave myself back! I must have been so stupid to ever believe I could come back without something going wrong!”

“Hey!” Jake grips my shoulders firmly, turning me to face him. “Your coming back isn't what caused this, okay? Whatever Silas Prescott's machine was designed to do, whatever happened when he manipulated the crystal, that's what brought you back. You did your part perfectly back on La Huerta.”

I feel my rage settle for a moment, overpowered by surprise at his words. It's not that I expected him to tell me I caused things to go wrong, or that I did something wrong back on the island...but I kinda expected him to protest more the idea that my coming back was anything but a blessing.

“...Jake...”

He raises a hand to cup my cheek, stroking it gently with his thumb. “...I of all people didn't want to question it when you came back to me. I still don't want to entertain the possibility that I might lose you again. ...But clearly Silas Prescott's meddling has had effects beyond the good ones.”

I feel tears in my eyes. “...I just want it to be over...I just want to be safe with you...finally have our year and a day and beyond...”

“And I still believe we're gonna get that, Princess. With everything in me. 'No land, no sea, no one can keep apart those who are destined to be together', remember? The fact that you're in front of me now pretty well reinforces that for me, no matter what Prescott had to do with it.”

I feel a sob bubble up in my chest and I can't choke it down. Another one follows, and I collapse into his arms.

“I'm scared,” I whimper against his shoulder. “Jake, I'm so scared...”

“I know. I am too.”

“If Silas Prescott had been showing off the Endless' severed right arm, I wouldn't be as scared as I am thinking that one of the Catalyst idols survived. Just the thought of seeing those visions again...”

His arms tighten around me and he kisses the top of my head. “I doubt it's gonna be like that. But even if it is, we're all gonna be with you this time. I mean, really with you. No hiding, right?”

I exhale, my breath shaking. “...No hiding,” I agree. “...I love you, Jake. To the stars and back, I love you.”

“I love you to the end of everything. We're gonna be okay, Princess. We're gonna make it.”

I let him hold me. Let him calm me. I let him lead me back inside and I let Diego and Varyyn take their turns at offering their support. It helps. But the fear doesn't entirely leave me. I don't sleep very well that night.

The next day, Jake wakes up early as usual to go to work. I'm up less than an hour after he leaves, showered and dressed in a leotard and tights, my hair pulled back into a tight bun. I have just enough time for a quick breakfast before I'm off to the dance studio. I've been loading my weekly schedule with classes, not only as a student, but as a Trainee dance teacher. It won't be long before I'm teaching for money. Most of the same teachers I grew up with are still there, and several of the adult students are familiar to me, former classmates I remember from before Hartfeld who either stayed in the area, or who moved back after college.

There's another familiar face behind the reception desk when I enter the studio. Jim Roberts, affectionately known as J-Robb to most of us here, has worked at the studio since he was a teenager. I remember having a crush on him when I was about thirteen. He's in his mid-thirties now. He's still handsome in a sweet, somewhat dorky way; a tall, slim beanpole of a man with pale, freckled skin, curly strawberry-blond hair, and glasses. He's friendly and animated, and the young dancers especially love the fact that he stands by the door at the end of class to send everyone off with a high five.

“Goooood morning, Alodia!” he drawls as I enter the building. “You here all day again?”

“Dancer in the morning, teacher-in-training in the afternoon,” I reply, signing in.

“Enjoy yourself.”

I slip into the studio, change into my pointe shoes, and take my place at the barre. Ninety minutes of ballet precedes a half-hour break, which is followed by a modern class. Then I have an hour for lunch, then one more class of my own, jazz, before I get to start winding down for the day, with two Trainee classes. Both are ballet, four- and five-year-olds first, followed by the preteen/intermediate class.

Unfortunately, about half-way through my modern class, the air conditioning at the studio craps out. With the day well over eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit, this becomes a major concern. We turn the lights off, open all the windows, drag every fan out of the closets that we can find, and take frequent water breaks, but it proves ineffective against the effects of eighteen bodies all dancing vigorously together. By the time I get back from lunch, I'm informed that the decision has been made to cancel classes for the afternoon. The outside doors are locked, and a sign posted on the door. The teachers all go home, but J-Robb stays behind to call as many of the students and parents as he can reach, and to deal with the HVAC people when they get here. It probably isn't prudent of me, but somehow, I can't resist the lure of the empty studio.

“Hey, J-Robb, mind if I stick around and use the studio to do a little choreography? Just as long as you're here.”

“You sure? I mean, I'm comfy enough sitting still with the fans going, but are you gonna be okay jumping around in there?”

“It won't be as bad with just me in there. Besides, I'm mostly gonna be marking. Won't do anything full-out that I can't handle.”

He shrugs. “If you think you'll be okay, go for it. Just stay in the first studio, okay? So I can keep an eye on you.”

“Will do.”

I keep the lights off and the fans going, and plug my phone into the speaker system and select an electronic trance piece; something that reminds me of Quarr'tel, but more melodic. I put it on a loop, walk to the center of the floor, and close my eyes, letting the music seep into my veins. For now, I'm just seeing where it takes me, marking out possible steps. I'll weave it into a coherent pattern later.

Ultimately, where the music ends up taking me is back to Quarr'tel. I can see the lights pulsing inside the dead tree. Anachronists surround me, swaying and flailing, throwing themselves into the wild dance. This is the Party Before the End. A farewell party to Vaanu. To me, too. Though I don't know if most of them realized it. I feel my steps getting faster.

Maybe some of them did. Maybe that's why some of them chose to follow Uqzhaal to Mount Atropo. Perhaps they realized who the Endless was. What she was. Perhaps they knew that I had to give myself back to Vaanu for it to depart. Perhaps they knew that the Endless had resisted that fate, spent her whole existence trying to give me something better than the loss of my own consciousness and separation from the only family I knew. Helpless anger starts to fuel my steps now. I remember the moment when I looked across the club at Quarr'tel and saw Uqzhaal glaring at me, his visage fearsome behind his warrior's mask. The accusations he flung at me. I remember when we encountered the Endless at the Threshold, what he said to her then.

“You used my people as fodder! Pawns! Caring only for your so-called Catalysts!”

And what were we to you, Uqzhaal?! The thought races to the surface of my mind unbidden. Were we anything more than pawns when Vaanti warriors attacked us at The Celestial? Do you have any idea how scared we were, being hunted down and cornered like animals?! Do you have any idea what it felt like to have my best friend and brother ripped away from me?! When he cried for me over the next six months, did you care?! Did you ever feel remorse?! What was I to you, Uqzhaal?! A pawn! A tool! What was I to you, Vaanu?!

...My daughter.

I whip around. Somehow, I don't question the fact that I'm suddenly standing in the central chamber of Mount Atropo, staring into a magma pool.

“Your daughter?” I practically spit the word.

Yes. My sweet, precious child.

Furious tears sting my eyes. “I don't believe you! In the end, I was nothing but a pawn to you, same as I was to Uqzhaal!”

That isn't true. I love you.

“Then why give me that choice?!”

I didn't give you that choice, Vaanu replies sadly. I was merely the messenger. There were simply no other options than the three paths you chose between.

“It isn't fair!”

I know, my darling. Very little is fair in the universe. It was not fair that our homeworld was lost. It is not fair that my brother has been separated from his daughter for so long. It was not fair that Quinn was born dying, or that Diego was lonely for so long, or that Jake was blamed for a crime of which he was innocent, or that you were born to protect eleven people and to choose between three terrible paths.

“I hate you! I wish I had never been born!” It's such a stupidly childish thing to say, but it feels true in this moment, and I can't help blurting it out. Vaanu makes a sound that might be a sigh.

The last time you threw a tantrum like this, you put on a red spacesuit. It almost sounds amused.

“Fuck you,” I growl.

My daughter, its voice is gentle, but there is a command that I cannot resist. Look at me.

I whine petulantly, but I raise my eyes. Above the magma pool, Vaanu's spirit floats in front of me, a familiarly androgenous shape. Abruptly, it begins to brighten, morphing. Just before it becomes too bright to look at, forcing me to throw my hands up in front of my face, I see the ghostly figure's chest broaden, the hips narrow, the Ken-doll anatomy between the legs begin to lengthen. When the brightness fades and the spots clear from my vision, a handsome man—thankfully clothed, in a Hawaiian shirt and bermuda shorts of all things—floats above the magma pool. He is blue-eyed and yellow-haired, generically good-looking. And yet, something about him is so familiar...

“...Vaanu...?” The man nods. I squint at his face. Then, my eyes widen as my gaze lands on his mouth. ...His rosebud mouth. I gasp, my hand coming to cover my own lips. The shape is the same, the rosebud mouth that Aunt Molly has always envied, always wondered at. “...Father...?”

Vaanu regards me achingly. And then he speaks, but not in my mind this time. “...If it were up to me, my child...don't you think I would have given you everything you wanted? This world safe and restored, with you in it and your friends beside you? ...Isn't that what any father wants for his daughter? To give her the world? The thing about our kind, though...our will is a powerful thing. Capable of making miracles.”

The heat in the central chamber is becoming oppressive. “...Va...Father...I don't understand...”

“Everything in its own time, my sweetheart.” He sighs. “I wish you had gone home with the other dancers...”

With that, I am yanked back to the studio so violently that the sprung wood floor comes crashing up to meet me. Nausea rolls through me. I can taste my lunch at the back of my throat and on my tongue, now sour and flavored with acid as it spills out of me onto the floor beside my head. Dark spots flicker through my vision as voices swim toward me through a dark, watery fog. My pulse sings against my eardrums, my breath coming out of me in shallow gasps as every muscle in my body seems to lock up at once in painful spasms.

“Alodia...! Alodia...!

 

Jake

 

About mid-afternoon, I get the call from the dance studio that Alodia has passed out, and they're taking her to the hospital. It looks like heat exhaustion, they tell me, that the air conditioning went out in the building. I immediately get permission from her uncle to take off, but the fact is still that I'm coming from LA, and if there's one thing I've discovered about southern California, it's that traffic is hideous no matter what the hour. I call Diego from the car, begging him to get to the hospital as fast as he can so Alodia won't be alone when she comes around. Thankfully, he agrees.

I'm about halfway to Riverside when Diego calls back. I tap my phone onto speaker.

“What's the word?”

“Allie's come around. She's still kinda groggy, but they've got her core temperature down to normal and they've got her on IV fluids. They want to run a couple tests to make sure everything is checking out okay.”

“What everything are they checking out?”

“Making sure there wasn't any damage to internal organs.”

“Fuck...”

“Don't panic, okay? Just get here as soon as you can.”

“You say that, but something in your voice is telling me there's something to be afraid of.” When he hesitates, I add, “Goddammit, Diego, just tell me.”

“I just wanted to get someplace a little more private,” he says with a hint of reproach. “...I overheard the doctors saying that the state she was in seemed more severe than it should have been for what her core temp was and how long she was in the studio. And as she was coming out of it, she was saying something about Vaanu.”

My grip on the steering wheel tightens. “...Just make sure she knows I'm coming to her, okay?”

“I will.”

* * *

I finally arrive at the hospital, and they direct me to a room in the emergency department, where my wife is lying on a bed in a hospital gown with a thin sheet draped over her legs. A plastic IV line snakes from the crook of her arm to the bag over her head. Diego sits beside her, gently holding her hand. She looks pale, and the roots of her hair are damp, but she turns her gaze toward me as I enter, smiling weakly.

“Hey, Top Gun.”

I hurry to her side to take her free hand. On the arm opposite the IV, there's a taped-down piece of gauze. “Hey, Princess. How you feeling?”

“Embarrassed, mostly. This was all my own fault.”

“What?”

“When the air conditioning went out, they sent everyone home, but I stayed behind awhile to choreograph. I promised J-Robb I was just going to be marking, but I got a little carried away.”

I can't help frowning. “...Is that all that happened?”

She doesn't seem surprised by the question. “...Not quite. But I'll tell you the rest later.” She sighs. “They're talking about admitting me overnight. They have my blood and my pee, but apparently that's not enough to convince them my organs haven't totally melted.”

“Well, if they decide to keep you here, I'll stay too.”

“Let me call your aunt and uncle,” Diego says. “I'll coordinate with them to bring your car over here from the studio so you can have it whenever they finally discharge you. ...After that, I should let Varyyn know what's going on. He'll be worried about you.”

She smiles. “That's sweet of him. Let him know I'm okay.”

Diego doesn't smile back. “...I'm not telling him that until I know it's true.”

* * *

By the time Diego has finished checking in with everyone, Alodia has been admitted. The doctor tells us everything looks fine so far, but they want to keep her under observation and possibly run a couple more tests in the morning. Diego gets us dinner in the cafeteria, and after securing permission to get something for Alodia too, brings it up to her room so that we can eat together.

“Allie,” Diego says after a moment, “when I got here, you were mumbling something about Vaanu...”

“That doesn't surprise me. I had a...vision of him before I passed out.”

I raise an eyebrow. “...Vaanu's a him now?”

“The ghost did always seem to have a flat chest,” Diego points out.

“I don't remember everything precisely about what I saw or what he said,” Alodia says. “But...I was left with the feeling that Vaanu is my real father. I mean, in this timeline. The one where I was born and had a childhood.”

For a moment, Diego and I are both silent. He's the one to break it. “...How...would that work exactly?”

“He didn't exactly give me the details. But I assumed he took human form, fell in love with and married my human mother, and then she gave birth to me. And then there was a plane crash, and they both died. Or...she died and he went back to the stars. ...Or...” she trails off.

“...Or...?” I prompt her. She still doesn't speak. She stares at the tray in front of her, then slowly pushes it away. Her hand is trembling. She starts to breathe faster and I feel my heart start to race with alarm. “Alodia?”

She turns to throw herself into my arms, clutching me painfully tight. I grip her back, cradling her head against my shoulder, rocking her gently. Diego puts a hand on her back.

“Allie, what's wrong? What's going on?”

“I...I can't...” she whimpers.

“You can't what...?”

“I can't say it...”

“Princess, whatever it is, we can face it. We can face it together. I promise.”

She is quiet for a very long time, except for the sound of her panicked breathing against my shoulder. Her breath is hot through my shirt; her fingertips dig into the flesh of my back.

“I love you, Jake...”

“I love you, too, Alodia.”

“I love you with all my heart. I won't lose you again.”

I tighten my grip. “I ain't losing you, either. I ain't letting you lose me.”

“But Jake...my parents died in a plane crash. Over the ocean. I don't know for sure but...it does seem possible that Vaanu has been broken again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jake

I tell myself I won't cry right now. I won't break down. I won't break anything else. I won't scream and curse. I'm gonna be reasonable about this. I'm gonna be calm. I'm gonna...oh, fuck it, I'm gonna squeeze the breath out of my wife. I'm gonna hold her tight enough to actually assimilate with her.

“...Fuck...” I whisper. “...Shit...no...no...”

“Allie...” Diego's voice quivers. “...You said you don't know for sure. ...How...unsure are you...?”

“I...well...pretty damn unsure to be honest...I mean, it's only a possibility that occurred to me just now...”

“So...it's possible you're jumping to conclusions?”

“Maybe...I mean, it seems like it might be possible. ...But it's also possible for a slight headache to be cancer...”

“So...you think the possibility is pretty slim?”

“...I...” She goes quiet for a minute. I feel her start to relax a little in my arms. “...Yeah...actually...I do.”

“When you first came back, you told us that trying to take you back was like trying to push a baby back into the womb. Do you still think that's true?”

She is quiet for another long moment. She adjusts herself in my embrace, curling into me, but turning her face toward Diego. Finally, she nods.

“...Vaanu called me his daughter. He said that every father wants to give his daughter the world. ...He...he also said...” She frowns a little, concentrating. “...That the thing about our kind is that our will is a powerful thing, capable of making miracles. I assume by 'our kind,' he means crystal aliens. I don't even know the name of my father's species.”

“That sound pretty positive to me,” Diego remarks. “Look, I'm just going by what you've told me, but putting everything together...I feel like the worst case scenario is that Vaanu is broken again, but this time he's the one who sacrifices himself for your sake, like any father would. Or he's broken again, but he can be fixed without you needing to give yourself up because you exist fully separate from him. ...Best case scenario is that he's not broken at all, and he assumed human form and married your human mother for the sole purpose of giving you the existence you wanted most.”

“...It all still sounds a little too much 'if' and 'maybe' for my comfort,” I mutter.

“No...I think Diego's right.” Alodia pulls back from me gently, taking my face in her hands. “...I'm sorry, my love. I think I scared you over a shadow. Can you forgive me?”

“Shit, Princess, you know I can forgive you anything. ...But...I'm just not fully convinced it is a shadow.”

“But you trust me, don't you?”

“More than anything.”

“Then trust me when I tell you that I'm not leaving you. I swear it on the watery graves of my father and mother. I'm not letting any land, sea, person, or crystal alien take me from your side again.”

She holds my eyes with hers, and I feel myself starting to calm. There is no trace of deception in her eyes, no sign that she's trying to hide anything to protect me. Maybe she's still scared, but she means what she's saying. I nod slowly.

“Okay. ...I don't know entirely what this is, but we're gonna face it together. And when it's all over, we'll still be together.”

...One way or another.

* * *

Visiting hours end and Diego reluctantly gets up to leave. Alodia's already nodding off, so I tear myself away from her long enough to walk him to the elevator.

“Hey, Diego...thanks for what you did earlier. ...Talking her down. And talking me down with her.”

He shrugs, smiling. “She's my best friend. It's the kind of thing we do for each other. ...The kind of thing we've always done for each other.”

“...You believe the things you said, right? You believe that she's safe? That we don't have to worry about Vaanu taking her back?”

“Jake, I'm not claiming to know anything for sure. But...yeah. I believe what I said. I believe it because it makes sense, and because I could tell she believed it. You know, once she had a little time to think about it.”

I shove my hands in my pockets, looking at the floor in front of me to hide the tears gathering in my eyes. “...I can't lose her again.”

I expect him to say something like, 'you won't'. Instead, he says, “...Neither can I.” I look up at him and see tears gleaming on his eyelashes. “...I've done okay for the past five years, and apparently there was a timeline where I survived twenty-one years without her...but she's my best friend, Jake. I love having her for a best friend, I love being her best friend. I never wanted to lose her. I can't bear the thought of losing her again...”

I pull him into a tight hug before I realize I'm going to do it. He holds me back. I don't say anything. There's nothing to say that we haven't said to each other a hundred times already. Someone we both love was taken from us once. Now she's been brought back, and we're both fucking terrified of losing her again. We're both ready to fight tooth and claw against anyone or anything that's gonna try to take her. ...Problem is, we can't see where our potential enemy is coming from. In spite of myself, I chuckle.

“...What?”

“Just...us. Here we are. Canis and Lupus. Dog and wolf with our hackles up ready to defend the pack, but we don't even know what the hell we're barking at.”

“We just know something smells off,” he finishes with a weak smile. “...Isn't canis lupus the scientific name for the gray wolf?”

I shrug. “Search me. ...You should go home and get some rest, pup. I'll look after our girl.”

* * *

Alodia spends the next day in the hospital. Her aunt and uncle come to visit for a few hours, but most of the day unfortunately consists of poking and prodding and peeing in cups, to say nothing of being manipulated like a doll while the doctors check her muscle function. By evening, she's fighting mad, which I consider encouraging. When she irritably informs one nurse that she is on the verge of ripping the damn IV out of her arm because the tape itches like fuck, I know she's back in action. I make a cursory apology on her behalf to the poor put-upon nurse, but I can't stop myself from grinning while I do.

By the time Diego comes back to check on her, early the next morning, Alodia is going completely stir crazy. The IV is out, thank god, or else I'm afraid she actually would tear it out herself.

“I hope you're keeping all sharp objects away from her,” Diego remarks with a smirk. “And blunt objects. Anything she could actually damage anyone with. If it's not you or me she ends up attacking when she finally snaps, it'll be an innocent nurse.”

“I have a feeling it's going to be you,” Alodia mutters and sticks out her tongue at him. She leans back with a huff, crossing her arms. “Why the fuck does it all have to take so long?”

There's nothing much either Diego or I can do except try to distract her. But sometime after lunch, the doctor comes in with a smile on his face. He hesitates a moment, looking at me and Diego.

“Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of them,” Alodia assures him.

“Okay then. Well, the good news is that everything checks out. Your vitals are strong, CBC and urinalysis all came back normal, kidney function looks good, no sign of muscle damage. You should go easy on yourself for awhile, especially in this heat, but we feel confident discharging you.”

Relief goes through us in a wave. “So, how soon can we get the hell out of here?” Alodia asks.

“Well, I've got your discharge orders right here. Is one of these gentlemen prepared to drive you home?”

“Either of us could,” Diego says. “But that one lives with her, so it's probably easier if he does it.”

“Then it shouldn't be more than an hour or two before you're on your way.”

Alodia groans. “Oh, come on...that long?”

The doctor chuckles. “I know, I know. There's just a lot of red tape to get through before you're actually good to go. Plus I'm going to have the nurse schedule you a follow up appointment in about a week. But you can go ahead and get dressed.”

“Fine. I'll take what I can get.”

She gets dressed. It takes about an hour before the doctor finally tells me that I can bring the car around while he goes over a few final things. Diego waits with her, emerging beside her when they wheel her into the parking garage. Before she climbs into the car with me, Diego catches her arm and pulls her into a lingering hug, whispering into her ear. She nods. I can't help frowning. There's something tense in his expression that concerns me. Finally, he lets her go, and she slips into the passenger seat.

“What was that?”

“...What was what?”

“I don't know. Diego looked...worried about something.”

She shrugs. “His best friend just got out of the hospital,” she points out. “He was just telling me to let him know when I get home safe.”

I study her for a moment. Finally, I nod. I'm not positive she's telling me everything, but it occurs to me that this time, she may be keeping a personal secret for Diego. Besides, she looks exhausted. My biggest concern right now is getting her home. Anything else can wait.

 

Michelle

 

“And you're sure you're okay?”

I'm stretched out on my bed, propped against a pillow with my computer in my lap. Sean is curled up beside me, gazing over my shoulder. A chat window on my computer screen reveals Alodia similarly posed in her bedroom in California with Jake beside her. She smiles wearily. “I'm fine. I have to go for a follow-up next week, but according to the doctors, everything looked okay when they discharged me.”

I sigh. “Maybe, but you talk about having visions of Vaanu and I can't help but worry what else might be going on.”

“Believe me, you ain't alone in that worry,” Jake mutters.

Sean slips an arm around my shoulders. “Are you sure it was an actual vision? Aren't hallucinations common with heat stroke?”

“Well, that's something else that's occurred to us,” Alodia replies, sighing. “I was planning on doing a little bit of research into the plane crash that killed my parents. If there have been any reports of anything strange happening in the area or anything like that.”

“It might take awhile before anyone notices anything,” Sean says. “Remember it took millions and millions of years for Elyys'tel to grow from one half of the Island's Heart.

Alodia nods. “I guess like with everything else, we can only wait for the meaning to reveal itself. Everything in its own time.”

I make a face. “You're awfully philosophical about this.”

“Less than you think,” she counters ruefully. “Those are the words I spoke to Vaanu on the day I gave myself back to him.”

I shudder. “Well, in any case, you need to get some rest. Make sure you keep your electrolytes up, and take it easy with the dancing for a little while.”

“No need to worry there,” she sighs. “My teachers aren't even letting me do more than watch for at least a week.”

“Smart. I'd tell them they have your doctor friend's permission to make it two.”

She snorts. “Sure,” she replies sarcastically. “I'll make sure to tell them in a hurry.”

“I'm serious!” I say firmly. “You worry me. I don't like to be worried.”

“Thanks for the backup,” Jake quips, grinning ruefully. “Anyway, I know it's late for you guys, so we should probably let you go.”

“Yeah, okay.”

We say our goodbyes and sign off. I close my laptop and lean back into Sean's embrace. He kisses the top of my head.

“Are you okay?”

“Me? I'm fine. It's her I'm worried about. I mean...did you get the impression she was holding something back?”

I can feel him frowning. “...Well...no. Not really. Unless she's more worried about Vaanu being broken again than she's letting on. ...She did seem kinda wrung out, though. I'm a little concerned about the kind of strain she's under right now.”

“Yeah...that's got me worried, too. With everything that's been going on since the Prism Gate blew up, it's only a matter of time before something gives under the weight of it all. ...I just hope that the something doesn't end up being Alodia.”

 

Craig

 

A week ago, we saw one of the Catalyst idols at the Prescott masquerade, and Estela might have seen her mom. The next day, over in California, Alodia fainted in a dance studio and spent two days in the hospital, and apparently had some weird dream about Vaanu. But I guess she's okay now. She's okay, and as long as she is, I can't be too worried about the idol or Olivia Montoya at the moment. I'm bouncing with excitement on the platform at the train station, peering down the tracks for any sign of the train's headlights. Zahra laughs next to me.

“You look like you're about to take off.”

“I can't help it!” I laugh. “I haven't seen Joey since Christmas! And he's never seen Northbridge before. I can't wait to show him our place! And where I work! And I can't wait for him to meet everyone!”

Zahra's smile flattens a little. “...Are you sure this is really a good time to be bringing Joey here? I mean, with liquid prism on the streets and everything, I still say it would have been better for you to go back to Michigan for a couple weeks...”

“Okay, A.) I would've missed you. B.) This is Joey's first big trip on his own, and he's been looking forward to this for months. C.) Are you really asking me to tell an eleven-year-old kid to stay out of a city where there are actual superheroes? Seriously, I think Dragonness is shaping into his first actual crush.”

“...He might end up being disappointed on that front,” Zahra sighs. “No one's seen her for days. Talos and Minuet, sure...but the dragon lady's MIA.”

“What about her alter-ego?” I ask, lowering my voice. The platform isn't very crowded, but I still don't want to go blabbing around that I know Dragonness' secret identity.

“I've hacked into Prescott Industries' personnel files,” Zahra whispers back. “But they can't exactly tell me where any one employee has been for the last few days.”

“Well, maybe she's got the flu or something. ...Can superheroes get the flu?”

“Search me. But maybe you're right. Maybe we just need to give her a few days to show herself. ...And I guess in the meantime, a total of eight Catalysts in the city should be enough to keep your little brother out of trouble.”

I feel my heart beat faster with excitement when down at the place where the tracks cross the street, the bells start to ring and the gate flashes as it lowers.

“We're about to find out for sure!” I exclaim. “Here he comes!”

The train glides into the station, and the doors open. My kid brother comes down the steps and hops onto the platform, dragging a rolling duffle bag behind him. He lights up when he sees me.

“Craig!”

“Joey!” My brother drops the handle of his duffle bag as I lunge at him, scooping him into a hug. “Little man! So good to see you!”

“You too!”

Zahra grins as I put him down. “What's up, rugrat?”

Joey makes a face. “Zahra, please. I'm eleven. I'm too old to be a rugrat.”

“Oh, you're too old, huh? Are you too old for me to do this?” She lunges at him and gets him in a headlock, ruffling his hair.

“Zahra!” he squawks indignantly. “Stop! You're gonna muss up my hair!”

“Your hair? Who are you trying to impress? Your doofy brother? Have you seen his hair lately?”

I pout, clutching my chest. “Ouch, Zahra. That hurts here.”

She lets my brother go, kissing my cheek. Joey smooths his hair and straightens his shirt.

“I think Zahra's hair looked better when it was purple,” he declares.

“Yeah? You want me to shave the sides again and do purple streaks like when I was in college?”

“Yeah! You looked like a rock star!”

Zahra laughs, playfully punching his shoulder. “Watch it, punk. I'm still a rock star.”

Joey picks up his duffle, and I sling an arm over his shoulders as we walk towards my car.

“So how was your trip, little man? Did you have fun taking the train here?”

“Yeah! Totally! I had a tiny little room all to myself, but there was also a dinner car, and Mom got me these meal tickets so I could get whatever I wanted. And she gave me some money for snacks, too, and I still have some candy if you guys want some.”

“Hey, that's thoughtful of you, kiddo,” Zahra says. “But we shouldn't have any right now. Michelle actually has the night off, so Sean's mom's invited us to dinner, and knowing Tricia, she'll have made way too much food.”

“Speaking of moms...I'll just text ours, let here know you got here safe.” I tap out a quick text as we reach the car, and pop the trunk so Joey can put his stuff in it. “You remember my buddy Sean, right?”

“Uh, Sean Gayle the football star?” Joey pretends to think about it. “Yeah, I kinda remember him.”

I laugh. “Get in the car, smartass.”

He sticks out his tongue, climbing into the backseat. “Better hope I don't tell Mom you called me that.”

I get into the driver's seat. “Buckle up, kiddo. Hope you're excited, 'cause I've got a killer couple of weeks planned.”

* * *

We get Joey settled in our guest room, and then the three of us curl up on the couch to play video games until it's time to head over to Sean's. We play the latest Ultra Bowl installment, just because I know it's one of Joey's favorites.

“So, what are you working on now?” he asks me.

“Ahh, that is a surprise for when I take you to work with me.”

“Am I gonna get to test some video games?!”

I grin. “Maybe.” He totally is, and he totally knows he is, but I can't just come right out and say it. I like to at least pretend it's going to be a surprise.

“I think you guys should make a game about the Northbridge superheroes.”

“Yeah?” Zahra says. “Craig tells me you're a Dragonness fan.”

“Well, yeah. Everybody is. She's awesome.”

“What about Talos and Minuet?”

“Well, they're cool, too. But Dragonness can fly!”

“That is pretty cool,” Zahra agrees. “How do you think she got her powers?”

“She's probably a mutant. Or an alien.”

“Alien, huh? I dunno. She looks pretty human to me.”

“Aliens can look human. They can wear disguises. Or maybe they already look human, they just got extra ears under their hair or something.”

“Or extra noses,” Zahra suggests.

“Or extra mouths.”

“Extra toes?”

“Extra butts!”

Zahra grins wickedly. “Well, you know what they say about extra butts. Extra--”

“No,” I cut in quickly. “Whatever you were gonna say, Z, no. That's my kid brother you're talking to.”

“Oh, fine. No corrupting the youth when the youth is your brother. Should we settle for getting the youth something to eat?”

* * *

Sean is outside his mother's apartment building with Michelle when we arrive, talking while Michelle sips at a can of soda. They look up and wave when they see us coming.

“Hey! It's the man of the hour!” Sean calls. “What's up, Joey?” He holds out his hand for a high five and Joey slaps his palm.

“Not much. Just got here a little while ago.”

“What are you guys doing down here?” Zahra asks.

“Taking a little break from the chaos,” Michelle replies. “It's kind of a madhouse up there.”

“I feel a little guilty, though,” Sean admits. “We really ought to be up there helping her.”

“We've been out here for ten minutes, sweetie. Nothing's going to explode.”

“It might,” Joey says. “Maybe the oven's about to blow up right now!”

“In that case, we'd better really hurry. They're gonna need us to rescue them up there!” Before Joey can react, Sean has him up over his shoulder, sack-of-potatoes style.

“Hey!” Joey laughs. “Craig, I'm upside-down now! Why am I upside-down?!”

“Beats me, little dude. Michelle, you're the doctor. Can you think of a medical reason why Joey might be upside-down?”

“Hmm, nope. I think it's psychosomatic. He's not actually upside-down, he just thinks he is.”

Joey sighs, rolling his eyes. “Ugh. First your girlfriend messes with my hair, then your best friend turns me upside-down. Why did I come here, again?”

“So you can test play the new video games your big brother is designing,” I reply, grinning.

“Oh, right. That's why.”

Michelle snorts, rolling her eyes. “Okay, in all seriousness, Sean, you need to put him down. Imagine trying to explain to your coaches that you can't play because you hurt your back trying to pick up an eleven-year-old kid.

“Trying and succeeding,” Sean answers a little petulantly. But he puts Joey down. “Fine. Super Doc has spoken. But let's get upstairs.”

Tricia Gayle's apartment is swarming with Catalysts. Quinn helps in the kitchen while Aleister sets the table and Estela and Grace play with Reggie.

“Cool!” Joey exclaims. “A baby!”

“That's Aleister and Grace's son, Reginald. We call him Reggie.” I point out Reggie's parents. “That's Aleister, that's Grace. Oh, and the one currently holding Reggie is Aleister's sister, Estela. And the one with the red hair in the kitchen is Quinn, and I think you've met Sean's mom before.”

“Just once,” Tricia says. She wipes her hands on a towel and comes out of the kitchen to shake Joey's hand.

“Can I get you something, Joey?” Sean asks. “Soda?”

“Sure. ...Can I play with the baby?”

“Joey's good with kids,” I say proudly.

“Well, come here, Joey,” Estela says. “We'll sit him on the floor and I'll show you his favorite toys.”

Joey eagerly goes to sit on the floor with Estela. “Mom says I can start baby-sitting when I turn thirteen. Some of the guys say that baby-sitting is a girl job, but I don't think so.”

“Quite right,” Michelle agrees. “Best babysitter I ever had as a kid was a boy.”

“Yeah?” I ask. “What was his name?”

“Tommy. He lived next door to me and my mom until I was about six. We had this little ranch house at the time. When I was really little, I would sit on a blanket and he would pull it down the hallway as fast as he could go without me toppling off. I called it 'Whee-blanket'.”

“There you go, Joey. That's a game you could play with the kids you babysit.”

Joey plays with Reggie until dinner is ready. Tricia serves spaghetti with garlic bread and salad, and some kind of fancy store-bought cookies for dessert. Sean, determined to help me make my little brother's first big trip on his own as awesome as possible, presents us with a couple of tickets to one of the Condors' exhibition games. Overall, I'd say Joey's trip to Northbridge is off to a great start.

Over the next few days, it only seems to get better. The Condors win their exhibition game, which of course only makes being there better. And, as we're leaving, a commotion starts up among the spectators. They point up towards the sky, where a familiar shape is streaking across the moon. Joey gasps.

“Is that...?”

I grin. “Dragonness? You bet your ass it is.”

“Awesome! Where do you think she's going?”

“Probably to fight some big evil dude. Come on, buddy. We should leave her to it.”

* * *

“You sure you have to go to this assembly thing?”

Zahra, running a comb through her long, dark hair, sighs. “Craig, I told you. Mayor Sandoval and DA Katsaros are going to be addressing the rise in super-powered crime, and Silas Prescott's going to be in attendance. This is not an event that Rourke International can ignore.”

“And Aleister and Estela can't spare you?”

“I don't really want them to spare me. Not for this.” She sighs, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “...I dunno, Craiggers. ...I kinda got a weird feeling about this.”

I frown, coming to sit beside her and put an arm around her. “...Then do you want me to call in to work? Come with you?”

“And either leave your eleven-year-old brother on his own or bring him with us? Hell no. You take Joey to work with you. Keep him out of trouble.”

“...If you say so.” I kiss her tenderly. “You keep out of trouble, too, okay?”

“I'll do my best.”

“Hey...I love you, Player One.”

“Love you, Player Two.”

* * *

Eerie, atmospheric music floats out of the computer's speakers as Joey guides the trenchcoated detective on the screen through a dank sewer, where a putrid green mist hangs above filthy water.

“Ugh,” the character groans. “It stinks down here!”

“Kinda wish he'd stop saying that,” Joey mutters. I chuckle.

“Think we need a few more lines of dialogue there?”

“Maybe a few. I mean, I've only heard three so far, and he keeps saying that one over and over.” He frowns in concentration, tapping a couple buttons. “Okay, the map's lighting up. Is that a clue or an item?”

“Keep going and find out.”

He guides the detective further into the maze of sewers, following the map rotating in the corner of the screen. As he gets closer to the item, the map's flickering gets faster and more intense. Finally, he reaches the item, glowing under a pile of sewage.

“Okay, detective, time to dig through some poop!” Joey declares, tapping the buttons. Naturally, the detective's hands aren't even momentarily dirtied by the sewage as he scoops up the item. The screen fades to black, fading into a cutscene as the detective exams the file folders.

“...I couldn't believe it,” the voiceover says. “But I knew her signature. My own partner had given the project her stamp of approval...”

“What?!” Joey yelps as the chapter save point flickers onto the screen. “No way! I was trusting her!”

I laugh. “Pretty good twist, huh? You wanna keep going with this one? Or you want me to show you something else?”

“I like this one. But if you need me to test anything else...”

“We don't have anything ready for testing yet, but I've got the team's approval to show you something really special.”

“What's that?”

“Scoot over and lemme at the computer.” When he scoots over, I close the game window and open up a file folder containing some concept art for the game idea I'd pitched based on the Catalysts adventures on La Huerta. It's just character sketches right now, with a few notes, but I know Joey'll be excited to be the first person outside the team to see them. “This is just some concept art. But we're gonna be making a new adventure game.”

“What's it about?”

“We're still working on story details, but it's about twelve kids who have to save a mystical island from a supervillain.” I pull up the concept art for the character based on Alodia. “That's Princess Andromeda. She's half-alien, but she doesn't know it yet. And she's got the power to travel through time when she wears a red spacesuit.”

“Are the other guys aliens, too?”

“No, they're humans. But they all got special gifts to get them through their adventures. And early on, they all get their own special powers. Like Urs, he turns into a bear, because his gift is that he's super strong. Delphine can control water and make rain, Stella is very fierce and she can turn into a dragon and breath fire, Aquila can fly...”

“I think Urs looks really cool,” he declares. I can't help grinning.

“I had a feeling you'd like him.”

On the desk beside me, my phone starts going off, shifting as it vibrates. Player One flashes on the screen. I pick it up.

“Hey, Z, wha--”

“Craig, get out of there.”

“Huh? Get out of where?”

“Get Joey and get out of the office! Better yet, get out of Northbridge! Things are taking a really bad turn down here, and I'm not sure how far it's gonna reach!”

Suddenly, I hear Kristy shriek, “Oh, my god!” She's standing at the window, staring down at the street below. The rest of the team starts to crowd around her, gasping and murmuring. I hear a sound like an explosion outside. At the exact same moment, what is probably the exact same explosion almost blows out my phone's speaker. I hear Zahra scream, hear people screaming around her. Then the call cuts out.

“Zahra?!...Zahra!”

 

Chapter Text

Estela

The ground beneath my feet rumbles ominously. One moment, I'm standing beside Aleister and Zahra as they frantically try to reach Craig and Grace, warning them to get out of Northbridge. The next, I'm airborne as the street suddenly throws me off with all the fury of a mechanical bull. Screams fill the air as the stone-skinned superhuman criminal known as Stonewall explodes out of the street, sending up a spray of broken concrete. I land hard on my back, my blood singing against my eardrums as Stonewalls criminal lackeys spring out of the sewers and flood the city center from nearby streets. I barely manage to scramble out of the way as the crowd starts to panic, the rush of bodies in the city center a potentially deadly stampede. ...Where are my friends...? ...Where is my brother...?

“Aleister! Zahra!” My voice is swallowed up in the chaos. Zahra was wearing her red jacket...there seems to be a lot of red in front of me. I just pray none of it is blood. I have to stay calm. If I give in to the rising tide of panic all around me, I'll be lost and so will the people I love. I will my heartbeat to slow, will my mind to focus. I weave through the crowd, ducking and dodging, ocassionally throwing a criminal lackey over my shoulder when they get too close. Then I see Zahra, crumpled on the ground, just inches from the edge of the crowd. I have to reach her...have to get her out of harms way.

Every hair on my body abruptly rises as an unmistakeable energy pricks at the edge of my consciousness. This was the energy that flooded my veins when I drank the sap from Elyys'tel's branches. The energy that lashed off Quinn at Lake Tethys when Vaanu's spirit took over her in the battle against Arachnid. The energy that flowed out of Alodia when the restored Heart was returned to the crystal pillar...when Alodia herself was returned to Vaanu...this was the energy that guided us gently off the roof as The Celestial crumbled beneath us. I just barely manage to throw myself over Zahra as the energy spills out of the city center crashing into buildings and skyscrapers around us, rapidly corroding them like water on stone and staining the debris clouds an unearthly shade of purple.

“Estela!” Aleister's voice cuts through the din just as Zahra groans and stirs underneath me. My heart leaps to my throat. “Estela! Zahra! Where are you?!”

“Aleister! We're here!”

I feel a hand grip my shoulder as I carefully lift myself off Zahra. The crowd is starting to run in one general direction now, mostly avoiding us, but I get a few hard kicks and accidental slaps. I sit up and find myself looking into my brother's face, gone from pale to deathly ashen with terror.

“Are you all right?”

“I'm fine. But I think Zahra's hurt.”

Between us, we ease her into a narrow crevice, just out of the way of the rush of screaming, panicking bodies. I turn her gently onto her back. Blood is trickling from a nasty-looking gash that runs from the center of her forehead to her left temple. Her eyelids flutter, but she doesn't focus on either of us.

“Damnation,” Aleister mutters. “This is bad. She needs to get to the hospital immediately. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't want to move her, but...”

“Normal has gone out the window,” I finish grimly. I hastily tear off my jacket and wind it around her wound as gently as I can manage. “Help me get her onto my back. I'm going to have to carry her.”

Between us, we get Zahra positioned, and I hoist her onto my back. As I am standing, I become aware of a terrible groaning sound all around me. I look up, seeing the sky darken as a portion of the building beside me starts to give way.

“Estela! Look out!”

 

Alodia

 

Alone in my aunt and uncle's house for the day, without any dance classes lined up, I have passed a lazy morning. When the housekeeper shows up, I retreat to the terrace with a book and a glass of lemonade so as not to be in her way. With Michelle's voice in my head, I apply sunscreen and open the parasol before curling up in a lounge chair beside the pool to read. I highly doubt I'll have a relapse of heat exhaustion just sitting by the pool, but if she were here, she would scold me for not taking proper precautions regardless of how low the risk was.

The television is blaring in the rec room, mostly background noise. The housekeeper likes to blast old '90's sitcoms while she works. I let it wash over me and sink below my threshold of perception as I sip lemonade and lose myself in an Arthurian fantasy. I don't even feel the headache starting to build behind my eyes until my vision starts to bend and turn colors. And by then, I'm pretty sure it's turned into a full-blown migrane. Nausea starts to thread through me. A cold sweat breaks out over my body as I roll off the chair and stumble towards the house. I'm sure my aunt has some extra-strength painkillers somewhere in her bathroom.

I push open the door, and the sound from the television fills my head until I feel like it's going to split apart. I have to turn it down...just until the painkillers kick in...after I take them...

The blare of the emergency alert signal goes through my head like an icepick. I cry out, falling to my knees. Somehow, I manage to climb to my feet and stagger into the rec room. The housekeeper is standing in the middle of the room, frozen solid with the remote in her hand.

“Please...” I hear myself whimper. “Please...turn the...s-sound off...”

A second or two later, there is blessed silence, and the silence brings a measure of relief, but the television is still flickering. I carefully turn my head to observe the screen. My vision clears in an instant. Just long enough to see the breaking news reports from the city of Northbridge. Time energy. Flowing off of a man I recognize as Silas Prescott in bright purple arcs. Causing destruction to the city around him. A city where I have friends...

My head is starting to throb again. It looks like a bomb went off. Terrified people stream out of damaged buildings as the crumbling edifaces send up clouds of debris that look like something out of Revelations. All I can imagine is my friends in the midst of the destruction. Crushed under buildings. Choking on debris...

The housekeeper has fled the room. Ignoring the pain in my head, I stumble through the house, frantically searching for my phone. I find it where I left it, charging on the kitchen countertop. I thumb it on and flip through my contacts. But...who should I call? Sean? Quinn? Michelle? Aleister? If any of them knew they were safe, they would surely let me know. And what if I call them and it distracts them from getting to safety? I can't protect them out here, outside the time bubble that hasn't existed since I gave myself back to Vaanu. I'm not the Endless anymore. I can't protect them...

Before I quite realize it, I've sent a call to Jake and raised the phone to my ear. He picks up before the ringback tone has played once.

“...Jake...” I whimper before he's had a chance to speak. “On the news...”

“I know, Princess,” he says softly. “I'm seeing it.”

“Please come home, Jake...please...I...I can't help them...I can't face this alone...”

“Alodia, listen to me.” His voice is gentle and authoritative. “I'm coming. I'm coming home to you. But in the meantime, here's what I want you to do: call Diego. Have him come get you, or you go straight over to him. You and Diego and Varyyn, you stay close until I can get there.”

“I haven't called anyone in Northbridge...I don't want to distract them...”

“That's smart. They won't forget to let us know as soon as they're safe.”

“Wh-what if...? What if they...?”

“There ain't anything we can do about it right now,” he says gently. “'Cept hold on tight and pray.”

“I love you, Jake...I love you so much...”

“Love you, too, Princess. Hold on. Just hold on until I get there.”

 

Estela

 

Thunder fills my ears, floods into my head, until it's drowned out by the high-pitched whine of tinnitus as my ears protest the assault. I close my eyes and hold my breath against the stinging, choking cloud of debris that blooms in the wake of the collapse, pressing myself against a remaining wall. I feel Zahra shudder on my back, coughing into my shoulder. After what seems like an eternity, the ground settles slightly under my feet, and the ringing in my ears quiets. I become aware of someone moaning nearby, and dare to open my eyes. By some miracle, we were not instantly crushed. The structure collapsed around us, I-beams and support girders and such burying us in a sort of cave, with a hole just wide enough for a person to slip through. It will be harder carrying Zahra, but if Aleister slips through first, I think I can pass her to him, and...wait...where is Aleister? My veins turn to ice as the moaning becomes recognizable as his voice. I cast my eyes around the debris cave, and find him in the light that filters through cracks in the cave wall. He's trapped, his leg pinned under a cross beam.

“Aleister!” I lie Zahra down as gently as I can manage and hurry to his side. His face is twisted with pain, his hands in fists beside him. “Hold on! I'm going to get you out!”

“No!” he gasps. “If you move it, the whole thing might give way!”

“Do you expect me to just leave you here?!”

“I'll be fine! Zahra needs to get to the hospital now! Bring back help once you've got her there!”

“I can't get her out of this damned cave without your help!”

“I'm not going to be able to help!” he answers thickly, tears glistening in his eyes. “You can't carry both of us. ...Maybe you should go ahead on your own...get help and bring it back for both of us...”

“No! I can't just leave you behind!”

“You don't have to.”

The new voice makes me jump. A voice that has long faded from my memory, but which is instantly familiar. The voice's owner is slipping through the space in the cave wall. I see my own face reflected back at me, but older. Darker. More wrinkles, fewer scars.

“...Mom...?”

 

Jake

 

“What the hell do you mean 'no'?!” I'm sure everyone outside Rob Fisher's office can hear me, but I'm too angry to give a crap. “This is your niece we're talking about! She needs me! Why the hell can't I go to her?!”

“Because it's 11:30am, and I need you at work!” he snaps back. “I hired you so that you could contribute, so that you could take care of my niece!”

“So because you want me to take care of your niece, you aren't letting me take care of your niece?! What the hell kind of fucked up logic is that?!”

“She isn't hurt, and she isn't deathly ill. She can survive until you get home.”

“Dammit, Fisher, have you seen the news?! What's going on in Northbridge as we speak?! She has friends there! I have friends there!”

“Your friends are not going to be helped by you blowing off the workday!”

I can feel myself quivering with rage. I can't believe I'm even hearing this. Goddamn, does this man have even a shred of humanity I can appeal to? I lean forward, placing my hands on his desk, letting my desperation come through.

“...What if it were your wife? Alodia's aunt? On the day my wife's mother died, if your wife had called you at work begging you to come home because her sister was dead and she needed you with her, would you have told her to wait until you got home? Would you have told her that her dead sister wasn't gonna be helped by you blowing off the work day?!”

Rob narrows his eyes. “That is none of your business. You shouldn't talk about things you know nothing about.”

“I know more than you think I know,” I growl. “I damn sure know a hell of a lot more about that young woman you supposedly raised, and I sure as hell love her better than you ever did. I know what she's going through right now, and I'm going home to her whether I have your approval or not. You don't like it, fucking fire me. I don't give a crap. We don't need your charity!”

“Jake, we came here in the same car. I have the keys, and I'm not giving them to you. Are you planning to walk all the way back to Riverside?”

“If that's what it takes to get home to Alodia, hell yeah I will.”

I don't let him get another word in. I turn and stalk out of the office. I skip the elevator, going for the stairs. It's only after I'm outside that I start to think seriously about how I'm going to get home. Southern California isn't exactly big on public transportation, I've been figuring out. But there is someone I know in LA who can probably give me some guidance. I find her in my contacts and send the call.

McKenzie.”

“...Bex...it's me. It's Jake.” I rush on before she can answer. No doubt my use of a childish nickname that I haven't used in years tips her off that something's wrong. “I'm not gonna go into details...if you're watching the news, you can probably figure it out...but I'm stuck in LA and I need to get to Riverside fast as I can. What do you recommend?”

“...I recommend that you meet me at the precinct so I can give you the keys to my car. I'll grab cab home after my shift.”

 

Craig

 

The fire alarms in the building start to blare overhead. Joey yelps, clapping his hands over his ears. I don't even think. I just react, grabbing my brother by the arm and pulling him out the door.

“Joey, come on! We gotta get outta here!”

“Craig, what's happening?!”

“I dunno, kiddo. But let's not get in its way!” I skip the elevator, rushing into the stairwell. The building shakes around us. “Don't stop for anything! Just keep running!” I'm so thankful I work on the second floor right now.

Once we get outside, though, I find myself freezing, looking back over my shoulder at the bright purple flashes visible through the destroyed buildings behind ours. Time crystal energy gone crazy. And Zahra's somewhere in the thick of it. I should go to her...I have to go to her...

Joey tugs at my arm. “Craig!” he cries fearfully. “Craig, you said to keep running! Don't stop for anything!”

I gulp. ...Zahra told me to get out of Northbridge. If it weren't for Joey, I'd never listen. But my brother's just a kid, and I'm responsible for him. ...I'll have to trust that Zahra can look after herself...

“Yeah...yeah, I'm sorry, kiddo. Let's go.”

 

Estela

 

A hundred thousand questions flood my brain, rooting me to the spot for a moment. I can't even summon the presence of mind to hug my mother when she's standing in front of me after eleven years of me believing she was dead. Then the present situation reasserts itself in my brain, and one question makes its way onto my tongue.

“How did you find us?”

“I had some guidance.” She nods at the opening, where a familiar spherical object is hovering through.

“Iris!”

Aleister cranes his neck to see. “...Mother?”

“And Murphy!” I exclaim as the blue-furred fox wiggles his way into the debris cave and scampers over to Zahra, whining as he laps at her face.

Iris' hologram flickers to life beside him. “Aleister, you're hurt!”

“We're going to get him out,” I assure her. “Can you tell us the best way to go about that without bringing everything crashing down on us?”

“I will do my best.” Her hologram flickers out again as the drone buzzes over Aleister's leg, observing the debris that has it trapped. I go to kneel beside Zahra.

“Zahra, can you hear me? Are you with me?”

Zahra moans, her eyelids fluttering. “...Estela...? What...what's...”

“You're hurt. You and Aleister. But we're going to get you to the hospital. I just need you to hold on a little while longer.”

“...Craig...did he...?”

“I don't know. I don't know where he is right now. Just hold on, Zahra.”

I feel a hand on my shoulder, a protective gesture. I look up to see my mother eyeing Iris and Aleister warily.

“...I never thought I would see my Estelita befriend Everett Rourke's son,” she murmurs in Spanish. I feel a flare of irritation in my chest.

“You mean my half-brother?” I mutter in the same. I feel my mother's grip on my shoulder tighten. I shake my head. “We'll discuss that later...”

Iris flickers to life again. “I believe we can safely extract Aleister. If you will allow me to guide you.”

“Absolutely, Iris,” I agree. “Just show me how to shift it.”

 

Sean

 

Sirens and alarms are wailing all through Northbridge. The disaster downtown has cancelled practice. My teammates and I stream out of the stadium, still in uniform, cellphones in hand as we frantically try to reach our loved ones. I call my mother and don't get an answer. I call Michelle to no avail. I try my mother again. This time, she picks up in a single ring.

“Sean, baby! Are you okay?”

“I'm fine, Momma. Where are you?”

“I'm okay. I got Quinn and Reggie and we're headed out of the city.”

“Wait, Quinn and Reggie? What about Grace?”

“She's going to the hospital. To look for her husband.”

My heart wedges in my throat. For a moment, my relief at reaching my mother was strong enough to overpower my fear at being unable to reach my fiancee. “The hospital...Momma, I can't reach Michelle...”

“She's okay, sweetie. The hospital hasn't been hit.”

“Yet! I have to get her out of there!”

“Honey, don't panic. I just spoke to her. I promise you, she isn't going to be willing to leave while people are injured and need help.”

“Maybe not,” I admit. “But I can't just leave her, either. ...Let me know when you reach some place safe.”

“...I will, baby. I love you.”

“I love you, Momma.”

 

Alodia

 

Everything hurts. I don't know if its my own pain, my friends' pain, Vaanu's pain or what, but it's almost literally put me under the table. I curl up on the kitchen floor, inhaling bleach from the housekeeper's floor cleanser. I'm sure it doesn't help, but I can't summon the strength to do anything except sob. I don't even remember if I managed to reach Diego. But then suddenly, the front door crashes open, and I hear his voice.

“Allie! Allie, are you in here?!”

“D-Diego!” I manage to croak.

He's at my side in a moment, helping me sit up and pulling me into his arms. “It's okay, Allie. I got you. I'm here. You're okay. You're not alone.”

His embrace sends waves of relief through me, strong enough to ease the pain. I cling to my friend, my face pressed into his shoulder. “Did...did I call you...?” I ask weakly.

“...No. You called Varyyn. Or he felt you. He said your mind and heart were in a storm of fear and you needed help.”

“That sounds about right,” I sniffle. “...The others...in Northbridge.”

“I know, Allie. I know.” He helps me slowly to my feet. “...Come on. Let's get you back to my place. Not so many awkward questions there. I'll let Jake and your folks know where we are.”

 

Michelle

 

Northbridge General Hospital is one giant trainwreck. Most of the staff have never seen anything remotely like what is currently happening downtown, and most of them are just trying to triage as best they can as the injured start flooding through the doors. We're all in crisis mode, fighting against our own instincts, which are screaming at us to find our families, our loved ones. We struggle against the desire to keep one eye on the ER lobby, watching for our own people to come through the door, or to check our phones every ten seconds instead of focusing on the patients in front of us. Other people have the luxury of being selfish in a crisis. I don't. I can't go chasing down Sean or Quinn or Estela or any of the other Catalysts in Northbridge. Every patient here is somebody's Sean. Somebody's Quinn. Somebody's Estela. Somebody's—

“Aleister! Aleister Rourke! He's my husband!”

I whip around, searching for the source of the familiar voice. I can't go chasing down the Catalysts. But if one of them happens to show up in front of me...

“Grace!” I rush over to where Grace is pleading tearfully with the attending. Relief floods her face when she sees me.

“Michelle!”

“Dr. Huang, I can take over from here. This is a friend of mine.” Dr. Huang nods gratefully, taking off in a hurry back to her other patients. I put an arm around Grace. “Come with me, okay?”

Grace nods weakly, sniffling. Her present state is enough to tell me that she doesn't know where Aleister is. Unfortunately, I don't think I do, either. First things first, though. I have to calm her down a little. I don't like how fast she's breathing. I flag down a nurse to bring a mild sedative and guide Grace somewhere she can sit down. I fill a cup at the water cooler and bring it to her.

“Sip this, Grace. And try to breathe deeply for me. In and out, nice and slow.” She does as I tell her. When the nurse brings the pill, she swallows it carefully, washing it down with a swallow from the cup in her hand. I keep my fingers gently on her wrist, tracking her pulse. In a minute or two, I feel it start to slow to normal. “...Okay. Why don't you tell me what's happened. Do you know where anyone else is?”

“...Qu-Quinn and Reggie are safe. They're with Tricia. I came back here to find Aleister, but...” Her eyes fill with tears. “I don't think anyone's seen him...and I can't reach him on his phone...Oh, Michelle, he was right there! He went to that assembly! He was right in the thick of it!”

“Easy, Grace. Easy. You stay here, okay? I'm going to look around, see if he slipped in unnoticed.”

Before Grace can respond, someone calls out to us. “Michelle! Grace!” I feel my heart leap into my mouth as I lift my head to see Sean weaving his way over to us, leading Joey Hsiao by the hand.

“Sean!” All semblance of professionalism and tact is cast aside as I leap up and throw myself into his arms. “Oh, Sean, thank god!”

He drops Joey's hand, wrapping both arms around me. “Michelle...Michelle...”

As I suddenly remember that Grace is right behind me worried sick about her missing husband and I am dressed in scrubs, I pull back. “Joey, are you okay? Where's your brother?”

“He told me to come wait here with Sean.” Joey looks like he's struggling not to cry. “He went to find Zahra and Estela and Aleister.”

“I ran into Craig and Joey just outside. He can't reach any of them by phone, but he's heading back toward the city center. If any of them were hurt, this is where they'd come.”

“I should go help him,” Grace declares, but I put a hand on her shoulder.

“No. I just gave you a diazepam. You need to stay here and stay calm for me. Sean, can you stay with her? I'm going to see if I can find any of them in the ER.”

 

Jake

 

I hate California traffic! I hate it, I hate it, I hate it! All these damned assholes in their Benzes and BMWs driving like snails down the highways, keeping me from my Alodia while my friends may be hurt or dying or dead on the other side of the country! I lay on the horn, I weave in and out wherever I can, I speed, I somehow manage to avoid getting a ticket. I know it's not good driving sense for me to be playing a satellite news station right now, given that it's broadcasting the disaster in Northbridge, the showdown between Silas Prescott and Dragonness like it's some kind of sports match. Especially because right now, Prescott seems to be winning. But I can't make myself turn it off. It won't tell me a damn thing about my friends, but to turn it off makes me feel blind.

I make it back to Riverside in record time, park illegally outside Diego's building, and race up to his door, buzzing his unit insistently. I hear an answering buzz, and the click of the front door. I yank it open and pound up the stairs. The door is already slightly ajar for me, and I push in to find Alodia curled up on the sofa in Diego's arms. The news is playing on the television in front of them. Varyyn gets up to close the door as I move to take over for Diego. Alodia clutches me hard enough to hurt a little, but I can't care right now.

“I'm here, Princess. I'm here.”

“People are going to die,” she whimpers against my shoulder. “Maybe not our friends, but some people are going to die in Northbridge because of this.”

“...We can't know that,” Diego murmurs, though he doesn't sound like he believes what he's saying.

“No, Alodia is right,” Varyyn says softly. “It is impossible for everyone to survive this.”

His words hang in the air, a haunting echo from a long ago battle. The battle in Elyys'tel against Cetus, when Alodia discovered her own idol in the beast's esca. I grip her tighter. My phone starts to buzz frantically in my pocket. I would normally ignore it, but it might be one of my friends telling me they're safe.

...It is one of my friends, but not one of the ones I'm currently concerned about. I don't know what the hell kind of time it is in Tokyo, but Raj has apparently just gotten wind of what's happening in Northbridge. He has opened a group text with the Catalysts.

Raj: Holy shit!!!

Raj: Every Catalyst in Northbridge, please check in!!!! Let me know you guys are all okay!!! :(

“...It's Raj. He's just figured out what's happening.”

My phone buzzes again.

Quinn: I'm okay. Reggie and I are with Tricia Gayle.

Sean: I'm at the hospital with Michelle, Grace, and Joey Hsiao. We're not hurt. Just waiting. Craig went to look for Aleister, Estela, and Zahra.

I show the texts to Alodia. Diego, reading them on his own phone, rubs a hand over his face and taps out a message.

Diego: Does anyone know where they were when this started?

It takes time before our phones buzz again.

Sean: They were there. They went to the assembly.

 

Everett Rourke

 

My television set is aglow with the fuschia light emanating from Silas Prescott. He has made a serum from one of my crystals and injected it into himself. A crystal he acquired without my knowledge or permission from my island. And now, filled with the raw liquid power of it, he is laying ruin to Northbridge in a most savage and uncouth display as he battles with Dragonness. I ought to be furious at the betrayal. I ought to be plotting how I might get my hands back on the crystal, how it might be used to bring me back to the brink of my greatest accomplishment. At the very least, I ought to be frustrated at his inability to use the crystals with the elegance and grace they deserve. But all I am at the moment is impressed. Awed. Silas Prescott seems to have found a way to use the crystals that I did not realize was possible. Without the Island's Heart or the Endless, he seems to have filled himself with the very energy from which the island was born, from which Alodia—the Endless—was fashioned like a golem from clay.

And who is this Dragonness? Is she another Endless? Another human willed into being by a crystal being and the needs of those around her? Perhaps she and the other superhumans have the blood of the Hostiles running through their veins somewhere in their ancestry. And where does Alodia fit into this puzzle? Why has she been given the strength to return? What power still lurks within her?

Silas has become a storm now. Wild, untamed like Cetus. But unlike that great legendary beast, Silas Prescott is human. The energy of the tachyon crystal is overwhelming him turning him into a writhing, pulsating aura of pure energy. And that is when the truth dawns on me. Or at least, part of it.

I know Silas Prescott. I know his weaknesses. I know his strengths. I know what drives him. He was always content to let me lead, even when we were boys. Brilliant, but not ambitious, he gained his fortune largely through wise investments, backing the right horses, hiring the right scientists. Even as rivals, we were friends. Until Helena's untimely demise.

Helena was his weakness. And it seems I underestimated my old friend's devotion. He is not making himself into a weapon to destroy Northbridge or Dragonness and her friends. He is not simply content to use the power the crystal race have left behind on Earth in either crystal or human form.

“You clever bastard,” I murmur. “You're a portal, aren't you. And what does that make Dragonness? ...The key? The key to the portal that will put you in their world?”

At that very moment, the black-clad superhuman grabs Silas by the hand and streaks into the sky, vanishing into the clouds. An unnatural hush settles over the crumbling city. The newscasters stutter and stammer as they search for the words to explain what they've seen.

Silas Prescott, releasing massive amounts of energy after injecting as many as six vials of liquid prism...and...now Dragonness has just taken him by the hand and flown off with him...I-I'm not quite sure where she's gone, where she's taken him...I'm wondering if anyone can get an eye on her? Can anyone locate Drago...”

And then he trails off as a massive explosion blooms in the sky overhead, searing fuschia light piercing the cloudlayer to touch the ruined city below.

 

Diego

 

My living room is silent as a tomb. All four of us are already crying, but for the moment, we don't have the breath to give voice to our grief. It isn't just that three of our friends are still unaccounted for in that wasteland of a city on the east coast. We just watched a hero give her life. We have seen heroes give their lives before. Like Ximeadra against Cetus, Dragonness distracted the monster to give her people time to escape. Like Mike against Lundgren, she took danger by the hand and dragged it away from the people she loved, even knowing that she would be consumed. ...Like Allie...like the woman sitting beside me, when we were huddled together on the rooftop of The Celestial...the one who was chosen by the crystals to carry their power, created by them for all we know, gave herself back to them to protect what was precious to her. The newscaster breaks the silence.

“...I...it...looks like it's over, folks. ...I...I don't know. There's been an explosion...I don't think Dragonness or Silas Prescott are anywhere to be found...”

Varyyn chokes, his head falling into his hands. I put my arms around my husband, pressing my face into his shoulder. I hear Allie and Jake shift beside me, no doubt wrapping each other up in their arms as the tears start to flow freely. For a few minutes, all we can do is weep. Then all three of our phones buzz at once. I sit up sharply, looking from Allie to Jake. They look back at me with fear in their eyes. None of us wants to be the one to pick up our phones first and read what is surely a text from the Northbridge Catalysts. The news could be good. It could be bad. None of us want to be the first to find out. So...we find out together. We agree to it without a word, slowly pulling out our phones together.

Sean: Everyone's accounted for. But Aleister and Zahra are hurt. We don't know exactly how bad yet.

“Well. I suppose that's the next thing we're waiting to find out.” I rub my hands over my face. “You two are welcome to stay as long as it takes. If that ends up being overnight, the sofa folds out. I'm gonna order us some take-out.”

“I'm not hungry,” Allie mumbles.

“All I need is a drink,” Jake adds. Varyyn exhales slowly, shaking his head.

“No. Diego is right. We must eat. We will not help Zahra and Aleister by starving ourselves.”

I see him catch Allie's eye and hold her gaze. Finally, she nods.

“...All right.”

 

Michelle

 

I was making a second sweep of the ER when the last of the Catalysts finally staggered through the door. Aleister was being supported between Estela and Craig, his right lower leg wrapped in a bandage of torn cloth. Zahra was being carried on the back of a woman whom I had never seen before. But I didn't need to have seen her to know her. Estela is the spitting image of her mother. I should have been more interested in the fact that Olivia Montoya was standing in the ER of the hospital where I work, but the fact that she had my friend on her back, and the fact that my friend's head was wrapped in Estela's blood-stained jacket, seemed a more pressing issue.

I shouted orders to nurses, orderlies, even attendings. Somehow, they all listened to me. Dr. Garcia and one NP whisked Aleister away for X-rays, and now I have Zahra on a gurney with a suture tray beside me. Craig sits at her other side, holding her hand. She's responsive, which is heartening, even if she seems a little disoriented. And she doesn't seem to have lost any feeling in her extremities. I carefully clean the wound, and change my gloves before picking up the syringe.

“You're doing great, Zahra. I'm going to inject a local anesthetic before I stitch you up. It might burn just a little.”

Craig grips her hand in both of his, kissing her knuckles. Tears are gleaming on his eyelashes. Zahra gasps a little at the first pinch and burn, but she manages a weak smile at Craig.

“Hey...what're you crying for, Player Two?” she mumbles, her speech just slightly languid.

“Whaddya mean, what am I crying for? I thought I coulda lost you.”

“Bull. Like I would've ever let some crystal asshole take...” She trails off, her eyes falling shut. Craig goes rigid with alarm.

“Zahra?!”

After a moment, her eyes flutter again. “...I hear you, Player Two. What're you crying for?” She squeezes his hand, hissing in pain as I inject the anesthetic into another point on the wound's perimeter. “Shit...my head is killing me...”

Craig looks at me, a fearful question in his eyes. I hold his gaze with mine a moment. “She might have a slight concussion. We'll take her for a CT as soon as I stitch her up.”

“What if it isn't slight? What if...” he trails off, biting his lip.

“Oh, what if, what if,” Zahra sighs. “What if Mount Atropo erupts again...what if Murphy starts breathing fire instead of ice...what if Alodia comes back? Wait...she did that already...”

Craig draws in a deep breath, gently laying a hand on the top of Zahra's head, taking care not to get in the way of my needle. “Hey, Z? Look at me.” Zahra manages to make her eyes focus on Craig's face. “...You're gonna be okay. You gotta be okay. I need you. I can't be Player Two without my Player One.”

Zahra manages a crooked smile. “Damn straight.” She is quiet for a long moment as I carefully suture the wound. Then, just as I'm pulling the final stitch tight, she murmurs, “I love you, Craig...”

He chokes, kissing her hand. “I love you, Zahra. ...I love you...”

 

Jake

 

At nearly nine o'clock, we're still sitting in Diego's living room, watching ongoing coverage of the events in Northbridge as we pick at cartons of cheap takeout Chinese. I nurse my second beer. I wish I were drinking something stronger, and I wish I were drinking more of it, but the way Alodia looked at me when I downed a glass of whiskey a few hours ago made me think she needs me to stay relatively sober tonight. And for her, you bet your ass I'm going to. Even as the number of confirmed fatalities climbs from four to five...from five to six...

Finally, our phones buzz on the coffee table in front of us. We freeze a moment, exchanging anxious glances. There is a second collective buzz. We reach for our phones, which buzz one more time before we reach them. As our phones keep buzzing, we read the incoming messages, and I feel the tension bleeding out of us as we release a collective sigh.

Sean: The family's intact! :)

Sean: Aleister's leg is broken. Zahra has a mild concussion.

Sean: And a forehead full of stitches. But they're both going to be okay.

Raj: Holy crap, I'm so relieved!!! <3 <3 <3 <3

Quinn: Thank god!

Raj: I'm totally crying happy tears!!!! I love you guys!!!

Quinn: What Raj said. Times a thousand.

The four of us exchange hugs as we laugh with relief through floods of grateful tears. Diego taps out a reply.

Diego: There are no words describing how relieved we are over here. Tell Aleister and Zahra to get well soon, okay? Love from me and Alodia and Varyyn and Jake.

He puts his phone down and sighs, wiping the tears from his eyes. “The offer is still open if you guys still want to stay the night.” He takes Alodia's hand and squeezes it. “...If you feel like you need a little extra support tonight.”

Alodia nods quickly. “I think I do.”

“It's probably for the best,” I agree. “There may be some...awkwardness back home we'd be better off avoiding tonight...”

Alodia looks at me sharply. “What awkwardness?”

I shake my head. “I'll explain later. It's been too much of a day to go into it now.”

If she was going to press the issue, she's distracted when our phones start buzzing again. I glance down to read the new message.

Sean: Olivia Montoya is here. She and Iris and Murphy got Estela and Aleister and Zahra to the hospital safely.

Even knowing Olivia was probably alive and in Northbridge, it's still a shock to think of her sitting in the hospital waiting room with Sean and the others. I don't think any of us quite know how to respond at first. It's Alodia who finally replies.

Alodia: Tell her thanks from the California Catalysts.

With the worst of the waiting over, fear and tension quickly gives way to exhaustion. Together, we move the coffee table, pull out the sofa bed, and get it made up with sheets, pillows, and blankets. For a couple minutes, we hem and haw over which couple will take the sofa bed and which will sleep in the bedroom. In the end, I think it's supposed to be Alodia and me, but it doesn't really matter since all four of us just end up huddled there together in the darkness, drawing strength from each others' presence. With my wife in my arms, and her brother and his husband beside us, I eventually float off to sleep.

I am awakened some time later by a shifting beside me. Alodia is squirming in my embrace.

“Alodia...?” I reflexively loosen my grip. She wiggles out of my arms, climbing over me and stumbling out of bed towards the bathroom. For a moment, I just blink blearily at her retreating form, assuming she just has to pee or something. But she turns on the light and doesn't close the door. As the sound of violent retching and heaving registers, I come fully awake. I sit up, throwing off the covers. Diego and Varyyn stir beside me.

“Wh...what's a...?” Diego mumbles.

“Alodia's sick,” I answer softly. “I'll take care of it. You guys go back to sleep.”

I make my way to the bathroom, where Alodia is on her knees beside the toilet, hunched over the bowl. I kneel beside her, quietly drawing her sleep-tousled hair back from her face. She vomits again and again, each wave of nausea going through her in a violent spasm. Sweat breaks out all over her body, making her skin slick. It's about fifteen minutes before her stomach is clear, long enough that I'm starting to feel worried. Finally, she reaches up with a shaking hand and pulls the handle. The sour odor of stomach acid and half-digested Chinese food lingers, even as she drops the lid onto the toilet seat. She sits back, trembling and weeping, and presses into a corner, hugging her knees to her chest. Something tells me I shouldn't try to take her into my arms right now, but I'll be damned if I'm just going to leave her. I snatch a clean washcloth from the towel rack and saturate it with cool water from the tap, wringing it out in the sink. Carefully, delicately enough that she could pull away if she wanted to, I turn her face towards me and gently bathe it with the washcloth, dabbing at the tears under her eyes.

“You okay? ...You have another bad dream? Probably to be expected with all this.”

She doesn't answer immediately. She closes her eyes, drawing in one shuddering breath after another as tears slip down her cheeks. I'm still hesitant to grab hold of her, but I lean in to kiss her clammy forehead. Finally, she speaks, her voice a weak whisper.

“...I'm not going back. I'm never going back to being stardust or crystal, or whatever the hell I was when I was joined with Vaanu. No matter what happens, no matter what state Vaanu is in right now. ...I can't give myself to him again. Not ever. Because it's not just about him anymore. Or me. Or even you or the other Catalysts. ...I have to stay here. I have to live.” She opens her eyes, capturing my gaze with her own. Her eyes shimmer with tears. “...Jake, I'm pregnant.”

 

 

Chapter Text

ACT XI : KITH AND KIN

Jake

It's about four in the morning and still dark outside. The bathroom in Diego's apartment still smells faintly like vomit. I'm not sure how long I sit there, staring at my wife. My poor wife, who's just been throwing her guts up, and whose face is still ashen, and who can probably still taste the vomit on her tongue. I had been blotting the sweat off her forehead just a moment ago. But now I'm frozen just about solid.

“...Jake? Say something...”

I swallow, trying to gather my scattered thoughts. She's pregnant. That's what she just told me. My Alodia, my Princess is pregnant. My eyes shift to the toilet.

“...So...was that...?”

“Morning sickness? Probably. Though it's still early.”

“And it's...mine?”

She rolls her eyes. “No, it's Diego's. I've officially claimed him for team bisexual. Yes, it's yours, soup-for-brains!”

“H-how long have you known?”

“For sure? Just since yesterday. ...At the hospital after I passed out, they tested my blood for it. Just part of routine admissions testing. The doctor told me as you were bringing the car around. It wasn't conclusive then. Just enough pregnancy hormone to recommend getting a second test at my follow-up exam. I just got the results yesterday.”

“...So...Diego knows...?” He was with her at the time, when I was bringing the car around at the hospital. Unless she sent him out of the room.

“He knows about the inconclusive test. Not about the positive one.” She sighs. “I told the doctor he could speak freely in front of Diego. Had I known what he was going to say, I would have asked for privacy. ...I think Varyyn might know, too. Psychic link and all that. He's never intrustive, but this is probably the sort of thing that would be hard for him to miss.”

“But...when do you think this...”

“...Happened? When did I conceive? I don't really know. I had a period after we got back here, so it probably didn't happen on the island. The doctor says I'm probably no more than four or five weeks gone.”

I sink down against the wall, dazed. “Well. This is...a hell of a thing...”

“Yeah. Certainly wasn't what I was expecting. We probably should have been more careful about using protection, but I guess with things being what they were on La Huerta, we never really got in the habit with each other.” She swallows hard. “...What should we do? I...know we've never really talked about whether we actually want kids.”

I swallow hard. “...Princess...if you don't want it, we don't have to keep it. I won't beg or try to guilt you or anything.”

“That's not what I'm saying, Jake. I do want it, actually. That is...I never felt the overwhelming need for motherhood, but I've never been against it, either. And...even if the timing isn't perfect, knowing I'm carrying your baby...” She bites her lip. “...Do you want it?”

“Well, yeah. Shit, Princess, I love kids. Surprising as it may seem, up until shit went south in the Navy, I'd had a head full of idealistic dreams of a future with a partner and kids...”

“That...actually makes perfect sense, to be honest.”

“I mean, the right partner didn't come along until I met you...the one who could actually make me feel like it was safe to settle down and stop running. And...like you said, the timing isn't perfect right now...but that ain't ever stopped life from happening, and I don't exactly feel like waiting for anything with you.”

“...'Waiting' hasn't ever exactly been our style, has it?” she says wryly. “I don't really feel like I can start now.”

I turn to look at her. “So...are...are we doing this? Are we actually having a baby?”

“Well...I'm pregnant. And...if all goes well...then, yes, Jake. ...We're going to have a baby.”

 

Estela

 

Except for Quinn, safe and sound outside the city limits with Tricia and Reggie, the Northbridge Catalysts spend the night at the hospital. Craig and Grace doze at the bedsides of their respective partners. Michelle catches what little sleep she can get in the on-call room. Meanwhile, Sean and I set up camp with Joey and my mother in the ER waiting room. At least this one seems to have been designed with anxious family members in mind, as there are at least a few long sectional sofas we can stretch out on. Sean and I sleep in shifts, the habits we picked up on the island kicking in while we're still in crisis mode.

It's about six in the morning when Michelle wanders back into the waiting room, her eyes shadowed with exhaustion. I gently shake Sean awake as she collapses onto the couch beside him. He sits up, blinking blearily.

“Michelle...” He scoots over to clumsily brush his lips against her cheek. “Hey...what's the word?”

“I'm finally off. And now I'm planning to go home, take a shower, and catch a few hours of sleep in my own bed. ...Provided everything is still there.”

“It should be,” I sigh. “The reports are saying the damage was mostly confined to the city center.”

“That makes sense. ...If it were any further out, I think the death toll would have been higher.”

Sean's face falls. “How many, in the end...?”

“Not including Silas Prescott or Dragonness themselves...eight. Which is low for the amount of damage that was done.”

“So, ten altogether,” he concludes grimly. “Too many. Way too many people dead because of Prescott's ego.”

For a moment, we're all silent. Then Michelle asks, “Do either of you want to come with me? I can't convince either Grace or Craig to go home yet, but Aleister and Zahra are in good hands here, and there's no need for you guys to hang around.”

“Yeah, I'll come with you,” Sean agrees.

“I'll stay here awhile longer,” I murmur. I glance over at my mother, now awake and sitting up, watching me. I should talk to her, now that things have settle down. Sean shakes Joey awake.

“Hey, buddy. Michelle and I are gonna go home for a little while. You want to come with us? Get some breakfast? Or do you want us to take you to your brother before we go?”

“I'm gonna stay with my brother,” Joey answers promptly. “...But...I am hungry.”

“How about this? My mom and I will take you to see where your brother is, and then we can all get breakfast together in the cafeteria?”

With the plan agreed upon, Michelle and Sean head out, while my mother and I walk Joey to where Craig is still at Zahra's bedside. She's still asleep, though, and Craig is determined to be there when she wakes up. Joey hesitates, but eventually decides to wait with his brother, trusting us to bring him something edible from the cafeteria. I am privately relieved at his choice. I don't think he speaks Spanish, so it isn't as if he would understand anything my mother and I said to each other, but I also don't want to have a private conversation with him sitting right there.

Of course, once we are sitting in the cafeteria with cups of bitter coffee and stale muffins in front of us, conversation takes awhile to get going. My mother is the first to break the silence.

“...You have grown so beautiful, Estelita...”

I feel my throat getting tight. “...You look just how I remember you. ...Just how you were eleven years ago...Mom...what happened? I thought you were dead. I saw Lila shoot you...”

Mom looks sharply at me, her expression alarmed. “You saw that?”

“The recording you made with the hidden camera at Elysian Lodge. I found it six years later.”

“Then...it all happened.”

“What I am curious about is what happened afterwards.”

“The truth is that I don't entirely know. One moment, I felt myself dying. The next, I was waking up in a mental hospital in Santo Domingo, learning that it has been eleven years since I thought my best friend had murdered me, and five years since they found me wandering the beach in a fugue state. Not only that, but my daughter has apparently been a co-owner of Rourke International for as long as I was in that hospital...”

I look down into my coffee cup. “A lot can happen in eleven years.”

Haltingly, I tell her everything. My quest for revenge. Six years fighting for San Trobida. Transferring to Hartfeld. Winning the trip to La Huerta. Everything that happened there. The terror. The hardships. The wonderful friends...the wonderful family I made for myself. And how the most wonderful of them all was Alodia. The Omega Specimen. The Endless. How she gave up her existence to save everything. How she found her way back when the Prism Gate failed.

“I think that's how you were brought back. She did the same with her husband's best friend. She told me she tried to plead for you, too. I suppose it worked, though somehow it took five years to bring you back fully.”

“Perhaps because I had been dead longer.”

“Perhaps.” I raise my eyes to her face. “Are you disappointed in me? For taking my place as Rourke's heir? I did it for my brother's sake, not my father's.”

“It is very strange to hear you refer to either of them like that,” she answers, a soft edge in her voice.

In spite of myself, I smirk mirthlessly. “You're the one who slept with the man.”

My mother chokes at that, blushing. “Touché.”

“Speaking of which, how did that happen? You and Everett Rourke of all people?”

“...Is it really that surprising? That a young, handsome, wealthy, powerful genius could capture and hold a young woman's attention?”

“But you're not some starry-eyed schoolgirl, Mother. You're strong-willed, capable, intelligent...”

“I'm also a human being with a sex drive, which makes me as likely as any other human being with a sex drive to make certain mistakes.”

“He was married!” What she is saying makes perfect sense, of course, but a part of me still cannot accept what I'm hearing. I don't know what I expect her to say. I know it would only horrify me more if I believed Rourke had coerced her into bed with him. ...Perhaps a part of me is hoping she'll say that she seduced him, though to what purpose, I couldn't imagine.

“He wasn't married at the time, Estelita. He was engaged to Imogen, yes. But he told me that theirs was an open relationship, and as infatuated as I was, I let myself believe it. By the time I woke up to reality, I was pregnant, and Imogen was his wife. ...And quite possibly pregnant herself by then. So I fled. Back to San Trobida, to your tio. You already know I went back to work for Rourke later. I never told him about you. That is, I told him I had a child, but I never told him you were his. I even gave your birthdate as six months later than it was so that the timing wouldn't match up.”

“...And that is why he believed my birthday was in January...” I murmur. “...But he must have suspected, because Draco was placed correctly in his password...”

“...What?”

“The password. To his computer. Remember, that's how we found him in the stasis tube.”

“Ahh. Of course.”

I am silent for a moment. “...You were right to hide me from my father,” I admit. “Growing up, I never felt the need to know who my father was, and I am glad he never got his claws into me. ...I only wish my brother could have had the same protection.”

“Estelita, that boy was not conceived as you were. He--”

“I know. He is a clone. That doesn't make him a copy. He is a good man, and I will not hear otherwise from someone who doesn't know him as I do. He...Joey, what are you doing here?” I abruptly switch back to English as I notice Joey hovering beside our table, watching us curiously. He shrugs.

“I'm hungry. I got tired of waiting. Zahra's awake, by the way.”

 

Alodia

 

When I'm sure that I'm not going to be sick again, Jake and I make our way back to the sofa bed. Varyyn and Diego are sitting up, watching us anxiously. Knowing they're not likely to get back to sleep without some measure of reassurance, I confirm the test results I received yesterday.

“Are you planning to keep it?” Diego asks.

“Provided there is something to keep, yes. I'm not going to be able to start making plans until I know there's a beating heart.”

“When will you know that?” Varyyn asks curiously.

“Two weeks. That's when I'll get my first ultrasound.”

“Remember when Grace was pregnant with Reggie?” Diego says. “And she showed us those ultrasound pictures?”

“Ahh, yes. The doctor will use a machine to make a picture of your child in the womb, correct?”

“That's right. But...as early as it is, there's not a heartbeat to find at this point. All I know is that the chemicals in my blood and urine indicate that I'm pregnant. ...For all I know, I've already lost it, and I just haven't started bleeding yet...”

Now that I've put it bluntly, the thought immediately fills me with a sorrow that aches to the marrow of my bones. Telling myself that it might just be a so-called chemical pregnancy is one thing. But to think that I may have conceived and lost a child without even knowing... Jake puts his arms around me, kissing my hair.

“We won't make plans yet,” he promises.

“Don't even let on to the other Catalysts yet,” I insist. “Not until there's a heartbeat.”

“What about your folks?”

“Same rule. Not a word for at least two weeks.” I nestle into his arms. “By the way, what was that awkwardness you were warning me about yesterday?”

He sighs, kissing the top of my head. “I...may have given your uncle permission to fire me when he didn't want to let me leave.”

It's my turn to sigh. “...Well, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the two of you butted heads.”

“...Should I be annoyed that that's your reaction?”

“All I mean is that I know you and I know him. He's a control freak, and you're a stubborn hothead like me. Ask Diego how many times I was either kicked out or ran away as a teenager.”

“It's true,” Diego confirms. “My parents just kind of got used to her randomly staying over for a night. It never lasted longer than that. ...And once...well...once I got kicked out, Allie and her uncle were much more careful about not letting it come to that since Allie didn't have a ready retreat anymore.”

“Aunt Molly can usually talk Uncle Rob around. It might not be as bad as you fear.”

A few hours later, it seems we're going to get the opportunity to see exactly how bad it will be. My phone buzzes with a text from Aunt Molly.

Aunt Molly: Are you still @ Diego's? Please come home. We need to talk. <3

I show the text to Jake. “The heart's a good sign.”

“I hope you're right. ...I guess we should be going.”

“Let us know how it goes,” Diego says.

There's a parking ticket under the windshield of the car Jake drove here when we get outside. He plucks it off, sighing.

“I'll have to pay this quick...this is my sister's car.” He sighs, opening the door for me. “...Heh...I'm becoming a father already...worrying about money.”

“No making plans yet, remember?”

“Right. Right. Sorry.” He gets into the driver's seat and starts up the car. As he puts his hand to the gear shift, I cover his hand with mine.

“...I love you, Jake.”

He pauses, turning towards me. Leaning over, he kisses me gently. “...I love you, Alodia. You mean the world to me. Whatever happens, we can face it if we're together.”

I nod, and he settles back into the driver's seat. We're silent on the short trip back to my childhood home, but as we make our way to the door, he keeps his fingers twined with mine. Aunt Molly and Uncle Rob are waiting for us in the kitchen when we arrive, steaming cups off coffee waiting for us. I hesitate before sitting down.

“...Don't you two have to work today?”

“We called in well,” Aunt Molly informs me. “Please sit down.”

We reluctantly do, joining hands again as soon as we are settled. Aunt Molly gestures to the coffee invitingly, but I shake my head.

“I don't want any.”

She doesn't press me. “...Have you had any word from your friends in Northbridge?”

“...They're all safe,” I inform her. “Relatively, anyway. Aleister's got a broken leg and Zahra has a concussion. But they should be all right.”

“I am very glad to hear it.”

There is a long stretch of silence, long enough that I start to wonder what it is they actually wanted to talk about. Finally, Uncle Rob clears his throat.

“Listen, Jake...I never actually fired you. So, in light of the circumstances, what if we just agreed to pretend yesterday never happened?”

“...That...would be generous of you, sir. Thank you.”

“However, there is something my wife and I would like in exchange.”

Jake leans back, crossing his arms as he casts a wary eye over my aunt and uncle. “...I'm listening.”

To my surprise, though, they pin their eyes on me. “Alodia,” Aunt Molly says, “I have made you an appointment with a therapist on the 27th. I would like you to keep it.”

I feel my heart start to race. I grope for Jake's hand. His fingers curl around mine and squeeze. “I...I have another appointment that day already...”

Aunt Molly raises an eyebrow. “You do?”

“Yes. ...Just another follow-up. You know, for the heat exhaustion.” That's a lie, of course. The appointment I'm talking about is with an obstetrician. To see if in fact there is something growing in my uterus.

“It seems a little excessive...”

“Well...you know. They want to be sure...”

“What time is that appointment?”

“Two in the afternoon.” I pray to God this therapist appointment is scheduled around the same time. Or at least close enough to prevent me from doing both. But Aunt Molly relaxes at my answer.

“Oh, there's no trouble there, then. I made the appointment for 10am.”

My heart sinks. Anxiety turns to anger in my throat. “So...what...you're going to hold Jake's job captive in exchange for my seeing a therapist? About what?”

“Alodia, don't be dramatic. I'm asking that you keep one appointment. You've been through a great deal of trauma. And you have to see that it's not reasonable for your uncle to employ someone who is going to take off at the drop of a hat every time you call.”

I feel my cheeks burn with humiliation. Jake's grip on my hand is painfully tight.

“Okay, first of all,” he growls, “this was not 'the drop of a hat.' This was a major disaster affecting people we both know and love. And second, you make it sound like this is happening all the time, when the only other time it's happened, it happened because she was physically sick from heatstroke! She isn't some clingy, fragile broken bird, for all you both seem to think she is! If she's calling me for help, it's because she needs help!”

Aunt Molly raises an eyebrow. “...I think she can speak for herself, Jake.”

We both go silent. We can sense that if we persist in arguing, they're both going to back us into a corner. We're already caught between a rock and a hard place. I can't be honest with any therapist. I just can't. I'm terrified that putting me in front of one would tempt me to say things that could put me, my friends, or the Vaanti in danger. ...But Jake's job may be on the line. And with the possibility of a baby on the way, how can we be cavalier? My trust fund won't last forever. Aunt Molly and Uncle Rob won't want a baby in the house, which means we'll need to find someplace to live. I squeeze my husband's hand.

“...One session.”

 

Sean

 

When the doorbell rings, I'm quick to hit the buzzer, but I don't wait for my guest to come up the stairs. I rush down three flights of stairs to meet him.

“Raj!”

“Sean!” We embrace, gripping each other firmly. “You have no idea how glad I am to see you!”

“Ditto, man.” I pull back. “How's Zahra?”

There has been some shuffling over the past few days as we and the rest of Northbridge have started to recover from the disaster. Raj insisted on flying in from Tokyo to help, which none of us had any problem with. He would have been content to stay in a hotel, but following the example of the Mad Hatter's tea party with a dash of human Tetris for inspiration, we managed to squeeze everyone in. Michelle and I are currently staying at my mother's apartment, while Grace and Aleister are in our room so that Quinn can help with Reggie while Aleister is laid up, and Raj is on Craig and Zahra's couch, with Joey in their guest room. Meanwhile, Olivia Montoya has apparently been living in an apartment in the Bayside neighborhood, so Estela has set herself up there.

“She's still pretty groggy. But she's home now, and I think that helps. Still, I'm not looking forward to when she comes around enough to realize that she has to limit her computer and video game time for a few weeks.”

“She does?”

“Yeah. She's supposed to get...how'd they put it...'physical and cognitive rest'. Limit cognitive stimulation. I think computer and video games definitely count.”

“Wow. That sounds...incredibly boring. Poor Zahra.” I sigh, turning to lead Raj up the stairs. “...How's Joey holding up? He's so young to have gone through something like this...”

“He's putting on a brave face, but he's being pretty clingy with Craig. I think seeing Zahra hurt and knowing it could have been his brother is pretty scary. ...How are you holding up, Sean?”

I pause, looking back over my shoulder. “Me? I'm fine. I'm just glad everyone's okay.” I can't help but notice that Raj looks skeptical. “...I mean...yeah, I'm still kinda shaken, but that's kinda to be expected, right?”

“Of course. But it's still okay to talk about it.”

I shrug, turning my attention back to climbing the stairs. “...Michelle and I tried to convince my mom to let you make dinner, but you know how she feels about guests doing the cooking.”

“I know, I know. It's supposed to be the host's job to provide food. But she is actually providing the food. I'm just the one cooking it.”

“And we told her that. But I think she still considers cooking to be something the host does while the guests relax. I think we may have argued her down to accepting a supervisory role.”

He chuckles. “I'll take what I can get.”

* * *

Momma does end up letting Raj make dinner. Knowing how much he enjoys cooking makes it easier for her to accept it. But she does insist on doing the dishes. I go to help her while Michelle and Raj kick back in the living room. As we scrape plates, load the dishwasher, and scrub the larger pots and pans, my mind starts to wander, back to La Huerta, back to the night at The Celestial when Raj threw us a feast so we'd stop fighting. Well...mainly so that Jake and I would stop fighting. The others were mostly just choosing sides.

That night, Alodia and I had loaded the dishwasher together, just the two of us. I had memories of her then. Or what I thought were memories, of a golden-haired young woman showing off her gymnastics prowess on the bleachers of Hartfeld Stadium in the hour before a game. I know now that any memories I had then were part of the Endless' elaborate illusion, built up loop after loop to keep Alodia naive until she passed the test at the Threshold and broke the cycle. ...Now those very same memories still linger. But this time, they're real.

“Penny for your thoughts?” My mother's voice breaks into my reverie.

“Oh...nothing important.” After the briefest hesitation, I say, “I was thinking about my friend Alodia. ...You know, the one we thought we'd lost on the island?”

“Of course, I know. It was all over the news for weeks after you all brought her home. How is she doing?”

“...It's...been a difficult couple of months for her. But she has Jake and Diego looking after her in California. Actually, it's kinda silly...I was thinking about a time when she and I did the dishes together after Raj threw a feast. ...It was...in the first days after we got to The Celestial. Before Rourke found us, and before we knew what had happened to the guests...” I shake my head with a rueful laugh. “I honestly don't know why it popped into my head.”

Momma smiles. “Sometimes, silly little moments like that just make themselves remembered. Just the other day, out of nowhere, I remembered a time when you were four or five...it was autumn, and we were living in that house with those great big ash trees. You were collecting helicopter seed pods from the backyard, opening them up, and dropping the seeds in a pail of water. You said you were making stew for dinner, and the little green seeds were 'porky beans'.”

I laugh. “God, I was obnoxiously cute. How did you stand me?”

“It was a trial at times,” she replies, grinning.

I am quiet for a moment. “...I had a massive crush on Alodia in the early days.” It's the first time I've said it out loud like that. It's not like it's a secret. The Catalysts all know it. Michelle knew it almost immediately. I went so far as to ask her out for heaven's sake. But I never actually just came out and said it. I'm not really sure why I'm saying it now. Momma raises an eyebrow.

“Yeah?”

I shrug. “Yeah. I mean, Michelle and I were broken up at the time...”

Momma studies me for a long moment. Finally, she turns back to the pot she's scrubbing. “This girl must be pretty special if she caught your attention at all. You have always had very discerning tastes.”

“Yeah. ...She is special. One of my best friends.”

“But she's not like Michelle.”

I feel a smile playing around my mouth, something soft and romantic. “...No...not like Michelle. Michelle is...strong and passionate and smart and fierce and generous and kind...and I guess Alodia is all those things, too...”

“...But Michelle is all those things in a way that fits with you.”

“Yeah. ...Michelle brings out the best in me. She makes me better.”

Of course, Alodia did that, too. It's what she was born for, created for. To make the eleven of us better. It's part of why I was so drawn to her at the start, the subconscious memories of two-thousand plus time loops, intuitive understanding of what she was. I was still smitten with her when I realized that she had fallen for Jake. Even as I backed off, even as the initial resentment faded, I still wished to be the one she looked at so lovingly. Even as I began to respect and even like and care about Jake, I would still spend hours at night trying to puzzle out why the two of them seemed to fit so well when I knew that she and I would have been a disaster as a couple.

I find myself thinking about this for days after Raj's visit. One evening after practice, I wander to the city center, where clean-up crews are just finishing up for the day. It's likely going to be weeks before the debris is completely cleared. It will be months or even years before the scars stop showing, before the damaged skyscrapers are repaired or replaced.

I can't help but remember passing through the Lernean Gate to find Hartfeld a fiery hellscape. The despair that flooded me when I recognized my mother's apartment building, when I ran up to her unit to find it had been destroyed just like the rest of the world. Alodia had been the one to follow me then. I remember the way the lava's blood-colored light gleamed in her golden hair and reflected off the amber armor of Andromeda.

We'll fix this, she promised me. We'll find a way.

And I believed her. The world was in hell, but she was an avenging angel. She could make me look at the end of the world and still believe everything would work out. It was terrifying to trust her that much. For years, I believed I had to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. I tried to be the hero, to protect everyone around me, to take on everyone's burdens myself. I had convinced myself it was a strength, or at least a virtue. But on the island, I was completely out of my depth. Jake and Estela, true fighters who had both experienced real battle, were a little more prepared, but even they found themselves taken by surprise. Only Alodia seemed to have what it took to lead everyone. A part of me was frustrated to no end, but I told myself to watch her. Learn from her. Figure out why everyone—myself included—trusted her more than they trusted me or anyone else.

Then, underneath the temple where we reunited with Zahra, we met the Endless. And the Endless lifted her helmet and revealed Alodia's aged face. Alodia revealed what terrible visions she had been seeing in the Catalyst idols, and how the Endless had manipulated the Vaanti for hundreds of years just to keep the eleven of us alive.

The horror of that moment was manifold. I hadn't really seen the strain that Alodia was under. Maybe I hadn't let myself see it. Maybe it would have been too obvious an indictment of my own hero complex. Diego had seen, obviously. Jake probably had too. But somehow I'd missed the fact that Alodia was starting to buckle under the stress of watching everyone she loved die. With that came the certain realization that it wasn't Alodia's leadership skills that we were all placing our trust in, but the fact that somewhere deep in our hearts, we all knew that everything depended on her. We could all play our parts, but in the end, our role was to bring her to the rooftop of The Celestial. She touched us all, and we grew under her nurture, and were made better. But in the end, the fate of the world rested on her shoulders. Billions of lives in her hands. Lives that an alternate version of herself was all too willing to sacrifice for the sake of building a paradise for the twelve of us.

Strictly speaking, our Alodia was never the Endless. The Endless was formed when the first Alodia, left alone and grieving for the rest of us, learned her own origins in her search for a way to bring us back. But everything the Endless was and had the potential to be still exists inside our Alodia. Even this incarnation. That potential for ruthlessness is still in her. I don't imagine the Endless made the decision lightly to travel back in time and make herself a god to the Vaanti. I imagine it took upwards of a dozen times of standing by and watching them slaughter us before she decided that was the only way. But she made that call. She made that call, and then she encouraged her alternate self to give up the rest of the world.

I don't blame Alodia for any of it. I don't even really blame the Endless. Even in this timeline, where Alodia is a human woman with a past outside of La Huerta, I know she and I could never have worked as lovers. There is a wildness in her that I could not have hoped to keep up with, but which Jake can easily match. And I know she would have surely felt stifled by me in the end. Michelle is patient with my flaws, even if it doesn't seem like it, and grounded enough to be my support without letting me crush her. But ultimately, it took Alodia's sacrifice for me to let go of my infatuation enough that I could turn around and see that my true love was right beside me.

I cannot be alone. I need friends. Family. I need to let them share my burdens. Because in Alodia, in the Endless, I saw true loneliness. Whether as Alodia or the Endless, she truly was the one with the weight of the world on her shoulders, and I saw how it destroyed her. Even when she made the most noble choice, giving her existence to give us everything, it left scars. Jake almost destroyed himself in his grief. I couldn't ignore anymore the way my need to bear all the burdens could hurt the very people I was trying to protect. As the Endless, she shattered my worldview, my belief in black-and-white morality, the unflinching, arrogant righteousness that had led me to reject Michelle in the first place.

I jump when I feel an arm hook through mine. Somehow, Michelle has materialized beside me without my noticing. She lays her head on my shoulder.

“Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you.”

I bend to kiss the top of her head. “The startle was worth it to have you beside me.”

“How romantic,” she chuckles. “...What are you doing way out here?”

“I could ask you the same thing.”

“Well, I was looking for you, of course. ...I kinda had a weird feeling you'd be here.”

I am quiet for a moment. Abruptly, I turn and pull her into my arms. I want to feel her pressed against me. I want her in my arms and I want her arms around me. She obliges, gripping me firmly.

“God, Michelle, what the hell are you still doing with me?”

“With you? I love you, Sean. Isn't that good enough for you?”

“After the way I treated you...”

“Hey.” She pulls back, bringing one hand up to cup my cheek. “That was a long time ago. We've both grown a lot since then. I forgave you a long time ago. Besides...it wasn't like I was exactly girlfriend of the year back then, either.”

“You weren't perfect,” I concede. “But that doesn't excuse the way I treated you.”

“Once again, though, we've both grown since then.” She grins. “Come on, I don't hear you wondering why Craig and Zahra are still together. And we both know they were an absolute trainwreck together the first time they tried being a couple.”

I sigh, shaking my head, but I can't hold back a rueful smile. “True.” I draw her against me again. “...I love you, Michelle. I swear I'll never walk away from you again.”

“And I'll never watch you go without a fight.” For a moment, we just hold each other. Then, she says, “...You may not remember...but today was my last day as an intern. I start my residency tomorrow.”

“That's right. ...I was going to take you to Cormier's to celebrate. I still could, right? I don't think it was damaged in the fight...”

“No, it's still in one piece. ...But honestly, I'm exhausted, and I have something else in mind.”

“Well, you name it. It's your special day.”

“Let's go home. We'll stop on the way for a nice bottle of wine. We'll put on our pajamas, order take out...and finally settle a date for the wedding.”

“Really? You're ready to name the date we'll become husband and wife?”

She smiles at me. “I've gotten used to being called Dr. Nguyen. But I'm ready to be Dr. Gayle.”

I laugh, kissing her forehead. “Well, then. Let's get ourselves a bottle of wine and go home to toast the future Mr. and Dr. Gayle.”

 

Alodia

 

They're dead. They're all dead. My friends are all dead at the hands of a race I can't begin to fathom, fearsome creatures with skin of blue and green who speak in a tongue I can't understand. They descended on us like a pack of wolves, and immediately began tearing us to pieces. ...Only two of us are alive now, cowering in a cave in the face of Mount Atropo. I clasp Quinn firmly in my arms, cradling her head against my breast. She holds me back, her breath hot as it filters through the fabric of my shirt to warm my skin. Something is wrong with her. She's burning up with a fever, soaking in sweat, rigid with pain as she struggles to draw in each breath. I try to reassure her, but my words are empty. I don't know how to treat her. I don't know how to protect her from these creatures. I don't know how to get her home. She pulls back, raising her watery sapphire gaze to my face.

“Let me go, Alodia.”

I shake my head. “No. No way in hell.”

“I can lead them off you. Give you a chance to escape.”

“Escape to where?! There's nowhere safe on this whole godforsaken island!”

She raises a trembling hand to cup my cheek. “You'll find a way. You'll find something. Everything depends on you.”

“What are you--”

“I'm dying, Alodia.”

“...What?”

“I came to this island with six months to live at most. ...If I die now or in a few more months, it doesn't really matter. At least this way, I'm giving you a chance to live. ...Take the chance I'm giving you, Alodia. I know you don't understand now, but someday you will. You'll figure it out. You'll figure out a way to fix everything.”

“No...please, Quinn, let me come with you...”

She shakes her head. Her breathing is becoming more and more labored. “...There...are some journeys...that you have...to take alone...”

Before I can protest further, she has summoned her strength and taken off into the jungle. I sink down in the darkness of the cave, frozen with shock and terror as her strangled scream tears the sky apart.

* * *

“So, Alodia,” Dr. Morita says after a long stretch of silence, “why don't you tell me what's on your mind?”

The ultrasound I'm having this afternoon, I think. “...My friends,” I reply aloud.

“Which friends?”

My family. The ones who gave me existence. “The ones who were on the island with me.”

I expect her to push me to talk about my trauma on the island. What Rourke did to me before he stuck me in a stasis tube where she believes I waited for five years. Instead, she says, “Why don't you tell me about them.”

“...They mean everything to me.”

“Will you tell me about them? What are their names?”

“Jake. Diego. Grace. Sean. Estela. Quinn. Aleister. Zahra. Raj. Craig. Michelle. Should I tell you more?” When she nods at me to continue, I go on. “Jake is the love of my life. He knows me to the depths of my soul, and to be with him is to be almost complete. Diego has been my best friend for as long as I can remember. He is beautiful and kind and creative and clever and most of the world doesn't appreciate him the way it should, even now. Grace and Aleister are married, and they have a beautiful son together. Neither of them ever had their parents' love or affection, but they are two of the kindest, most loving people you'll ever meet...”

I go on, pouring out my love for my Catalysts onto this stranger. I will talk about them for as long as she allows, long enough to run out the clock on our session if possible. In this room, protected by a seal of confidentiality to rival a church confessional, my love for my friends is a safe topic. Not every topic is safe. But this one is.

Dr. Morita lets me go on almost until the session ends. Then she holds up a hand. “Let me stop you there, Alodia. I want to ask you something: when I ask you to think about your friends, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?”

I mean to say 'family'. I want to say 'family'. 'Family' is usually the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of my Catalysts. But instead, I blurt out the first thing that has popped into my mind just now.

“...I can't protect them.”

“...What can't you protect them from?”

Well, I'm in it now. Backpeddling would only increase the damage. I just have to navigate carefully. “...Anything. From what happened in Northbridge. From time.”

“Time.”

“Yes. That thing I imagine we're running short on.”

She glances at the clock. “You are right. But I just want to ask you one more question: do you believe it is up to you to protect your friends?”

“...Perhaps.”

“Why do you think that is?”

Because on the island, it was up to me. I am Vaanu's daughter, and I was the only one who could save them. “...I don't know. Anyway, we're out of time, and I need to go.”

“You are free to go, of course.” She stands up, holding a hand out to me to shake. “It was very nice to meet you, Alodia. I hope you will consider coming back.”

* * *

“...Oh, God...oh, my God....”

My stomach is covered in cold, slimy goo. My bladder is full almost to bursting, a requirement this early in the game apparently, to lift the uterus to the surface and make it easier to see. But any discomfort has faded into the background. Because the technician has just turned the screen toward me with a smile. There's a small, vaguely human-shaped blob in the center of the screen, grainy and white. The technician points to a spot on the blob, where I can just about make out a tiny flutter.

“That's the heartbeat.”

I feel Jake's grip on my hand tighten. I manage to tear my eyes away from the screen long enough to look over at him. His eyes are sparkling as he takes it in. He curls his other hand around mine and brings it up to kiss my knuckles, never taking his eyes off the screen.

“Are you seeing this, Princess?”

I smile, turning my eyes back onto the screen. “I'm seeing it. I'm pregnant. I'm actually pregnant...”

“This is real. ...We're really having a baby.”

“...We're having a baby, Jake...”

 

Sean

 

For once, a Skype call with the other Catalysts has resulted in smiles all around as Michelle and I announce that we've set our wedding date for March. Even Zahra, still looking a little weak, with her forehead still sporting a large bandage, grins as she leans against Craig on their sofa.

“It will be off-season then, and Michelle will be able to get the time off work that far in advance. The only thing we're having trouble deciding is which coast to have it on, east or west.”

“I'm personally leaning towards the west coast,” Michelle adds. “Because we've got the perfect excuse to hold it in southern California, and the weather's much more likely to be nice. Besides, they've got beaches.”

“And I suppose a Vaanti handfasting isn't really in the cards?” Quinn asks.

“Niala'rei is in January,” Diego points out.

“A difficult time for me to get away,” I concede.

“Ahh, the ceremony isn't so much the point,” Jake declares, draping an arm over Alodia's shoulder. “Niala'rei, an old-fashioned Western white wedding, or something else entirely, all you're doing is throwing a party and a little ritual to publically declare that you're crazy in love enough to spend the rest of your lives together. And we kind of knew that already.”

I laugh. “You're lucky we all know you here, Jake. It was a little hard to tell if you were saying 'Congratulations' or some form of 'Bah, humbug'.”

“I only say 'Bah, humbug' at Christmas. Congratulations. Seriously.”

There's a flurry of wedding talk for a few minutes, although there isn't much to tell since we don't have many details planned. When we briefly lapse into silence, Alodia clears her throat.

“I...actually have some news, too. But I feel a little bad now, because I feel like I'm going to steal your thunder.”

“Oh, please!” Michelle laughs. “Steal away. As long as it's good news. We can use all the good news we can get.”

“Well...you should be prepared in case you're thinking of having me stand up in your wedding. ...I'm pregnant.”

The news sends everyone into another flurry of excitement, congratulations, and questions.

“When are you due?” Michelle asks.

“Early in April.”

“Yay! So it will be an April baby, just like me!” Grace laughs. “Which is quite a coincidence, since Reggie is a January baby.”

“So, you're going to be pretty far along at the wedding,” Michelle says thoughtfully. “I think we have to hold it in California now.”

Alodia snorts. “I'm happy to be your excuse if you really want a California wedding, but don't go altering plans on my account. I promise I'll try really hard not to go into labor at the wedding.”

“If you do, it will just make things more exciting,” Michelle declares. “Heck, I may even get to deliver your baby. Fair warning, I'm going to be calling you at least once a week until it's born to check up on you.”

“She isn't lying,” Grace sighs, grinning. “She did the same thing to me.”

Quinn sighs. “I do wish you were over on the east coast with us, though. With you pregnant and Michelle getting married, it feels like all the Catalyst girls should be together right now. I mean, it would be great if the whole family were together regardless, but weddings and babies seem like the perfect events for girlfriends to bond over...”

“Speak for yourself,” Zahra snorts. “I don't want anything to do with the little bugger until it's out.”

“Possible awkward question,” Raj pipes up. “Who's gonna be the godfather? Mike or Diego?”

“Woah, Raj!” Craig yelps. “Way to stir up the drama right off the bat! Isn't it a little early to be asking them a thing like that?”

Jake laughs. “Don't worry, we've already decided. We just haven't had a chance to ask him yet. ...Diego? Are you willing to be the godfather?”

Diego looks genuinely surprised. “I...me? Really? Of course! I'm flattered! Are you sure?”

“Absolutely,” Alodia confirms. “Mike was the best man at our wedding. You get godfather dibs on my first baby.”

“Besides, we're going to ask Rebecca to be the godmother.”

“I'm leaning more and more toward California for the wedding,” Michelle declares.

“I don't care where it is,” I reply. “As long as you're walking down the aisle towards me, and the rest of you are there to see it.”

“Well...if you do choose California, we've got the perfect place for the reception,” Jake informs us. “We told Alodia's folks about the baby, and they immediately offered us the beach house.”

“Seriously? Just like that?”

Diego sighs, rolling his eyes. “You underestimate just how little her aunt and uncle want to go through having a baby in the house again.”

“All right!” Raj crows. “You're hosting New Years' Eve this year! It'll be perfect. Holidays somewhere warm, a joint birthday party for you and Michelle and a chance to toast to both a future Catalyst wedding, and a brand new baby Catalyst! Actually, thinking about it, that might be a good time for a joint wedding/baby shower, too...”

I sit back with Michelle's hand in mine, feeling a goofy grin cross my face as talk turns to Raj's plans for the biggest Catalyst party since Elysian Lodge. Maybe things aren't completely back to normal after the horror of the disaster a few weeks back. But my family is whole, and we're starting to plan for the future again. And just like that, I know we're going to be all right.

 

Rochelle

 

Nothing is ever going to be the same again. I know that beyond a shadow of a doubt. A month ago, I watched my daughter give her life in a battle with Silas Prescott to protect the city. I suppose she was trying to protect me by never telling me that she was Dragonness, but I knew. Of course I knew. Who else would it be but the child who came through the Prism Gate twenty-five years ago? Besides, I'm her mother for godssake. I know her silhouette. I know the way she walks, the way she moves, the timbre of her voice.

The day after the battle, I sought out Poppy. I was still dazed, numb with grief. I had to tell someone. I had to tell someone what I knew, and Tahira's best friend seemed like the right person. I haltingly confessed what I had told Tahira only a week or two before the battle, about the Prism Gate, about her origins. Reluctantly, Poppy admitted that she knew. She and Dax had known since the Prism Gate first malfunctioned how Tahira had been affected by it. It was Dax who had constructed her costume, and the two of them had guided her since she had been released from the hospital, suddenly blessed with the powers of flight and super strength. Poppy did not give me the identities of Talos or Minuet, and I didn't ask for them. I don't need to know them. Let them go about their lives, cleaning up the remnants of Stonewall and his criminal gang.

I don't know what to do with myself since I lost her. Dax tries to assure me that he is working on a way to find her, to bring her back, but I'm afraid to hope it can be done, afraid to hope that my little girl is alive somewhere.

I come to the city center nearly every evening as the construction crew are wrapping up for the day. The debris is pretty much clear by now. Someone has set up a shrine to Dragonness in the center of the square, a small stone tablet reading, Dragonness, the hero of Northbridge. Candles and flowers are strewn around the memorial, more and more every day. I burst into tears the first time I saw it. Gazing at it now, my throat still tightens painfully. It makes my heart swell to see how eager people are to honor her. And yet, there is a bitterness I can't quite swallow. How many of the people leaving flowers are really mourning my Tahira and not just Dragonness? Besides that, what about all the other people who lost their lives that day? Where are their shrines?

I know I should be proud of the brave sacrifice my daughter made that day, of all the lives she saved. And in the depths of my heart and my soul, I am. ...But that pride isn't strong enough yet to overcome the my grief.

… I never told her goodbye. ...I never got her forgiveness for concealing her origins...

“...Our summer is over.” A voice sounds beside me, making me jump. “But another will come soon. And when it does, imagine me with you. Because with you is exactly where I'll be.”

I turn to my right and find myself looking down at the profile of an elderly woman with pale, weathered skin and a head of limp, silver hair. She is short and rail thin, wearing a red sweatsuit in spite of the sweltering August heat. She looks as if she must be ninety years old. And yet, there is something about her, a hint of power that is both intimidating and strangely familiar.

“...I'm...sorry...?”

She slides her gaze to the side and up to my face. Her eyes are a stunning shade of blue. “...Words recorded some time ago, by someone far braver than I, just before she gave herself up for the greater good. ...Looking at this memorial, they seemed appropriate.”

“I see...” I turn back to the shrine, shifting uncomfortably. I don't want to talk to this strange woman right now. And yet, I don't have the will to ask her to leave me to my grief.

“Only a handful of people were aware of the sacrifice that young woman made. They have made certain to honor it, but most of the people whose lives she saved don't even realize she existed. I am glad to see your daughter getting her due.”

Electricity shoots down my spine, followed by a trickle of ice. I whirl to face her. “...How...how did you...?”

“...I am glad to finally meet you, Rochelle Rogers.” The woman turns toward me, holding out her left hand for me to shake. And that is when I realize that she is an amputee. Emerging from the end of her right sleeve is a skeletal bionic hand. Trembling, I take her left hand in a loose handshake.

“Who...are you...?”

“My name isn't important. Not yet. I'm an old woman who isn't long for this world, and I can't really help you very much. But what I can tell you is this: I am your daughter's true kinswoman. And I know for a fact that she is alive.”

 

Chapter Text

Rochelle

Perhaps I should be more skeptical. If I didn't believe Dax could find my daughter and bring her back, why should I believe a stranger? It isn't logical. But something about this stranger seems to defy all logic. No, not just defy logic. There is a fierceness in this frail old woman's eyes that makes me believe logic cowers at the sight of her. She gestures to a bench nearby.

“Shall we sit down?”

I nod weakly. “...Y-yes. All right...” She leads me over to the bench and sits down beside me.

“I know this is a lot to take in. I wish I could give you time to process it all, but I'm afraid time is something I no longer have the strength to ignore.”

“You...you say that Tahira is alive...?”

“She is. But she is trapped right now.”

“Trapped where?”

“In another dimension. On the homeworld of her biological parents.” She pauses a moment. “...Her parents sent her to you to save her life. Your longing for a child combined with their will to save theirs and allowed her to pass through the Prism Gate.”

“...I...don't understand...”

“Of course you don't. Not yet. But you will, in time.” She chuckles in a way that makes me think she is telling some sort of inside joke, but there is a bitterness in the sound, too. “It's...a strange thing that happens sometimes when one of her parents' race meets with a human. The two races are alike in so many ways, and when a human's will and need combine with their own, miracles can happen. ...You will understand when you meet Alodia.”

“Who is Alodia?”

“Your daughter's cousin. She will explain in more detail.”

I am quiet a long moment. “You tell me that Tahira's alive. That she's trapped. Am I also to understand that there is a way to free her?”

“Yes. In truth the solution is...while not easy, relatively simple.”

“What is it?” When she seems to hesitate, I grasp her arm. “Tell me, please! She's my child...”

“I know. ...If I could, I would bring her back myself. ...The time was I might have been able to do so with relative ease. But I don't have that power any longer. I'm a weakened shell of my former self, and my existence has become a paradox.”

I want to protest that I don't understand, but I worry that she is going to feed me that line about understanding in time again, and something about those words makes my skin crawl.

“...Is there someone who does have the power?”

“Yes. Many someones, working in tandem, have the power to find the solution.”

“But you won't tell me what that solution is, even though it is supposed to be relatively simple!” I am growing increasingly frustrated. My daughter is trapped, and this woman is speaking riddles around the means to bring her back to me.

“My time is short. And I have been reduced to a messenger. It will all become clear when you meet Alodia. For now, though, I can tell you where to start. Go to Grayson Prescott. Tell him what you know, of Tahira's origins, and of her identity as Dragonness. Most importantly, tell him what you know of the origins of the Prism Crystal.” She pins me with her cerulean gaze. “You will need Alodia to reach Tahira. But to get to Alodia, you will have to go through the Eleven Catalysts.”

“I'll go through hell and back to get Tahira home,” I growl. She chuckles.

“I am not suggesting a battle. You must earn their trust. Of course, it will not hurt if you can come to the negotiating table from a position of power. I can help you with that. So can Grayson Prescott, once he knows the crystal's origins. ...The danger will not be over once Tahira is home, either for her, or for Alodia. The Catalysts will need the information they will gain from the quest for a solution.”

Frustrated tears are streaming down my cheeks, but I don't know that I can get her to give me more than she already has.

“So...I have to tell Grayson Prescott what I know about Tahira's origins and the Prism Crystal's...?”

“That's right. And then...he'll bring me to the Eleven Catalysts.”

“He will bring you to at least one of them. More likely three. They will be the first barrier.”

“...I wish you could just tell me how to get my daughter back...”

“So do I, Rochelle. ...But I lost my arm trying to interfere directly to protect my family. I know my place. I know my role. I am only messenger, and I can only guide. Now, Rochelle, there is something I need you to do for me.”

I sigh. “...What is it?”

“I have begun the process of dying. I need you to take me to Northbridge General.”

“You've...begun...?” My heart drops as I realize that her skin has turned ashen under a sheen of sweat and her breathing has grown labored. “...Oh, my god...”

“There is...something you must give to my doctor. And only to my doctor.” Her intact left hand trembles as she removes something from her pocket. It looks like a tiny hourglass on a chain beside an miniature stopwatch. She holds it out to me. “Her name is Dr. Nguyen. Dr. Michelle Nguyen. ...Tell her this: 'Eleven made one. Twelve are one'.”

I accept the trinket, studying it carefully. It doesn't look like much, just a pair of charms, elaborately detailed though they are. But something about them holds my attention. Until I hear the softly fluttering clump of a human body collapsing. I yelp, falling to my knees beside her. I look frantically around for someone who may be able to help, but the construction workers have all cleared off for the day. I pull out my phone to call an ambulance. When the call is made, I hunker down to wait beside the woman, curled up on her side on the pavement. Her eyes flutter and she raises them to my face.

“...Doctor...Michelle...Nguyen...” she rasps.

“But...wait! What's your name?!”

But her head has already dropped to the pavement again.

 

Michelle

 

It never fails. Just when I get two seconds to pause for a sip of coffee in the doctor's lounge, my beeper goes. I'm apparently needed in the ER. I sigh, reluctantly placing my coffee cup back on the table and climbing to my feet again. I can do this. The trick to getting through each day working at a hospital is to give yourself something to look forward to. Big or small, it doesn't really matter. In about four months, I'll have a few days off to spend with the Catalysts in California. And at the end of my shift, I'll have dinner with Sean, a hot bath, and a few hours' sleep in my own bed. But for now, I'm needed in the ER.

One of the interns is waiting for me when I get down there, standing with a dark-skinned woman who looks to be in her mid-forties or so. Perhaps a little older.

“What is it, Liliana?”

“There was a Jane Doe admitted just now. Old woman, stable but unresponsive, no ID on her.” She gestures to the woman beside her. “This is Ms. Rogers. She was there when Jane Doe collapsed. She called the ambulance. She says Jane Doe asked for you by name.”

Something warm and electric sizzles a warning in my belly. I frown at the woman. “So, Ms. Rogers...Jane Doe gave you my name, but not hers?”

“That's about the size of it. ...She also gave me this for you.” She pulls something out of her pocket and hands it to me. It's something on a chain. Two somethings. A tiny hourglass, and what looks like a stopwatch. I feel the blood rushing out of my head to settle at my feet. I'm not sure what this is yet, but it involves a mysterious old woman asking for me by name and sending a messenger to give me two timepieces on a chain. Whatever it is, I don't like it. I tuck the charms into my pocket.

“...Thank you...”

“She also said...'Eleven made one. Twelve are one'. She seemed to think you'd know what it meant.”

Well, now I like it even less.

“...Can...you describe this old woman?”

“Well, except for the bionic hand, she doesn't really have any distinguishing features.”

My veins turn to ice. “...A bionic hand? Right or left?”

“Right, I think.”

“...Liliana? Where is she now?”

Liliana leads me to the room where the patient is. I know what I'm going to see when I peer around the corner. I know who I am going to see. That doesn't make it any easier when right there in front of me, the Endless herself is lying in a hospital bed with a cannula in her nose. I should be alarmed. I should be scared. I should be wondering what the hell she is doing here. But for a moment, I'm just sad. For a moment, all I can think is that this is Alodia. This is some incarnation of my dear friend. Of course she asked for me by name. I turn back to the Liliana and Ms. Rogers.

“Thank you,” I say softly. “I can take over from here.”

They both retreat, and I move to sit on the bed beside the Endless. I sit on her left side and cover her good hand with mine. Her hand is cool. I'm almost surprised when she stirs at my touch, her eyes fluttering open and focusing on my face. She smiles.

“...Michelle...”

I feel myself smirking a little. “I have to say, even with everything that's happened in the last few months, I still never expected to see you again.”

“I never really expected to be back,” she confesses. “But then...neither did Alodia.”

I feel my smile slipping again. “So...why are you back?”

“Straight to the point, of course. I expect nothing else from my bright, beautiful Pavo.” She sighs. “I'm not back for long. I've got hours to live at most.”

“But...why? What's wrong with you?”

“What's wrong with me, my Michelle, is that this body is at least ninety-six years old and it has been through far more abuse than most people a quarter of my age. And that estimated age isn't even considering the fact that when this body was first born, it resembled that of a twenty-one-year-old. Factoring in my supposed age when I first came into being on that plane, this body is probably closer to 117.” She shrugs, grinning wryly. “My suit prevented me from aging further than I already had when I put it on. But I don't have it anymore. I couldn't very well help my Catalysts outside of La Huerta while wearing it.”

“...Help us?”

“Of course. What else is the purpose of this life of mine?”

I hesitate for a moment. “...We've...been trying to convince Alodia that she has a life and purpose outside of us...”

“Well, of course Alodia does. Her new existence is her cosmic reward for making the choice I didn't have the strength to make. My ressurection is just a strange side-effect.”

“...Wait...I thought it was the Prism Crystal that brought Alodia back.”

She nods. “Oh, it was. That doesn't mean it was an accident.”

I feel my forehead wrinkle as I take that in. Typical of the Endless, to give an answer that only leads to more questions. “...Okay, let's leave that for a moment. ...When you talk about helping us...?”

“I mean guiding you. Just as I always did, through two-thousand one-hundred thirty-nine loops. Guiding you so that you, my Twelve, will survive and prosper.” She chuckles ruefully, and I see her skeletal right hand flex slightly. “I don't have to hide nearly as much this time...though I still don't dare be as direct as I wish I could be...”

“Please, tell me what you can. Anything you can.” She draws in a breath, and my stomach twists as her expression tightens with pain. “...Endless?”

She grunts a little, then her expression settles into a smile as she turns her hand to curl her fingers around mine. “Don't worry. A little discomfort is to be expected at the end of one's life. ...I will tell you everything I can possibly tell you. But you must forgive me if I take it a bit slowly.”
I bite my lip, feeling a little guilty. “...Of course. Take your time.”

“...With Alodia's energy returned to him, Vaanu was complete. But Alodia had become her own consciousness, and Vaanu loved her as his child. So, Vaanu returned to Earth's recent past to make himself her natural father, siring her on a human woman. Both he and his human bride perished over the ocean when Alodia was an infant.” She pauses for a long moment. “...You do not have to worry about losing her to Vaanu again.”

A tension that I have been carrying around in the back of my mind since the Catalyst Reunion floods through my body and immediately drains out. I feel suddenly lightheaded, and there's a tightness in my chest and throat that makes me think I'll burst into tears at any moment.

“Really? ...She's really safe?”

The Endless snorts. “Safe? Not likely. But she is not going to be returned to the stars. She was conceived within the La Huerta time bubble in 1995, and she was born within it in 1996. When her father died that same year, it forever bound her existence to the earth. Reentering the bubble in the year 2017 meant that she was able to close the circle and undo the anomalies. But one final element was required before she could actually be returned to human form.”

“...The Prism Crystal.”

“Precisely. Infused with a little piece of Alodia's life energy on the day of her birth, and hidden on La Huerta for Helena Prescott to discover. A few months ago, that little piece of Alodia's life energy found the spark it needed.”

“...Which was...?”

“Her own paternal kin.”

“Her own...? You mean...some...relative of Vaanu? On earth?”

“That is correct. One in particular.”

I frown. Her tone suggests that I ought to know who she means. I take a cautious guess. “...Dragonness?”

She nods, smiling. “The very same.”

“...Why did you give me those timepieces?”

“Because you will need them. Alodia will need them.”

“Alodia is pregnant!” I blurt out. I'm not sure why I felt the need to announce that at such a precise moment. Maybe because it sounds like the Endless is talking about sending Alodia into battle. She regards me calmly.

“I know.” A playful smile curves her lips. “...That rather raises the stakes, don't you think? Since she'll be fighting for our Jake's child as well as herself and our Catalysts.”

“But fighting what?! What danger is she going to be facing?!”

The smile slips off her face. “...Alodia gave herself back to Vaanu begging for Mike to be restored. For Olivia to be restored. And they were. ...The trouble is...when it comes to Vaanu's race...will is a powerful thing. Very powerful. And at that particular moment, her soul was just in such chaos...” She sighs. “...You already realize that Mike and Olivia were not the only ones restored. Lundgren was brought back. I was brought back...”

I feel my heart drop, splashing into my stomach as the true meaning of her words sinks in. “...Oh, God. ...How many...?”

“I can't say for sure. ...At the very least...Lila. Surely some others who died inside the time bubble. ...I know she tried to bring back Imogen. I don't know if she succeeded. ...It is strange, but I don't even know how the poor woman died...” She lapses into a long silence, staring up at the ceiling. Finally, her eyes meet mine again. “The powers Dragonness gained from the Prism Crystal are her birthright. ...Such power is Alodia's birthright as well.”

“You mean...Alodia might be able to fly or turn herself into bronze or something like that?”

“Something like that. Her true potential has not yet been unlocked, but she is Vaanu's true daughter. However her power ends up manifesting itself, it will be her gift and her curse to bear.”

“So...are the other superhumans also relatives of Vaanu? Or...countrymen, maybe? Are they from his home planet?”

“No. Talos, Minuet, Stonewall, the Man on Fire...they are the descendants of humans who were in one way or another indirectly exposed to the Island's Heart. Not enough for Vaanu to enter into them the way he entered Quinn, but enough that they took a bit of his power. Perhaps their ancestors ate fruit off one of the great trees, or sweetened their tea with Elyys'tel's sap, or drank water from the rivers. They would not have been on La Huerta long enough to be transformed into Vaanti, but that exposure altered their DNA, and that alteration was passed to their children. And then those children came in contact with the Prism Crystal...”

“...And their bodies reacted.”

“Precisely.”

I close my eyes, drawing in a deep breath and slowly letting it out. I take in another, and then a third, putting everything together in my mind.

“...Okay. So...Lila has been ressurected, and probably some others. ...And are they the ones Alodia may be in danger from?”

The Endless nods. “Well, potentially. And Rourke. Rourke is always a danger.”

“But Rourke is in prison.”

“Which is good, but not a guarantee of safety. No prison is escape-proof. ...Combined with the power of liquid prism, Silas Prescott managed to use Dragonness's power to create a rift in space and time that transported them to Vaanu's homeworld. Dragonness is Alodia's paternal cousin. ...Rourke already knows that Alodia is alive. If he discovers what power she still possesses, he will be very keen to use her and Dragonness. Between them, they may well be enough to complete Project Janus.”

“So...what can we do?”

“...Protect her, my Michelle. As you love her, protect her. As she loves and protected her Catalysts, her Catalysts must now protect her. Be certain of everyone before placing your trust in anyone. ...But please...see that she meets her cousin. Be careful who you trust...but you must bring Dragonness home.”

“How?”

“Quite simply once you've put all the pieces of the puzzle together. But gathering those pieces will teach you who you can trust. I have set everything in motion, my Pavo. The rest is up to my Catalysts now.”

I nod slowly. Something tells me she has told me all she dares. “...So...what happens to you now?”

“Now, I die.”

… I am a resident physician. I survived med school, survived an internship in a hospital. Death is basically my coworker. But the matter-of-fact way the Endless says it makes my throat tighten. She just looks so much like Alodia.

“Just like that, huh?”

“It's better this way. Better that I am not hanging around while Alodia's trying to live her new life. Besides...it won't be the first time I've died. Even as myself.” Her wrinkled lips curve into a frown. “I...do have just one request.”

“What is it?”

Her eyes lock with mine, and suddenly she looks as fragile and vulnerable as a lost child. “...I...would rather not be alone this time...”

… I'm on the clock. I can't just drop everything to sit at her bedside. But I can't deny her, either. I text Sean. I make sure he knows where to find me, make sure he understands that he needs to come to the hospital immediately. I stay with the Endless until he arrives. He stops when he sees her, staring silently. There is no anxiety in his posture or his expression. Just sorrow.

“...She's dying. I'll explain everything when it's over. For now, she just needs someone to stay with her.”

“...I understand.”

Sean takes my place at the Endless' bedside, enclosing her frail left hand between his palms. I try to go about my day, but I keep drifting back to her room. Nurses and doctors pepper me with questions about the Jane Doe I am so interested in. All I tell them is that she is taken care of. That I'll take care of her and anything to do with her.

She is still alive when I get off my shift. Alive, but sleeping. I pull up a chair to wait, slipping my arm through Sean's. About thirty minutes later, her eyes flutter, but she does not focus on either of us.

“...Thank you, my friends...” she whispers. “...You are worth everything. ...Because of you, I know what love is...”

Her eyes fall shut. They don't open again. Within ten minutes, she's gone. For a moment, Sean and I sit still at her bedside. A moment of silence that we weren't able to give her the first time. It doesn't last long, though. She wouldn't want it to.

“...I have to take care of the body,” I murmur. “Tell the Catalysts we need an emergency group call. Things have just gotten...really complicated.”

 

Chapter Text

Jake

 

2:34am. 2:35am.

Warm California night air, heavy with the scent of saltwater, drifts through the open window, wafting over me and my wife as we lay entwined in bed. I stare up at the ceiling, where a fan's blades spin lazily, churning and cooling the air in the beach house bedroom. Alodia lies beside me, tucked under my arm with her head on my chest.

I can't sleep. I think I may have nodded off somewhere around one in the morning, but I was awake again an hour later. I haven't managed to drift off again. Everything Michelle told us this evening is still painfully fresh in my mind. The good news is, we don't have to worry about Alodia being...reabsorbed into Vaanu. She's no longer the missing piece of the Island's Heart. The bad news is...she's not out of danger. And right now, it isn't completely clear where the danger is coming from. She brought Mike back to life. And Lundgren. And apparently, they weren't the only ones. At least Olivia Montoya, Lila, and the Endless herself were all restored by the strange power of Vaanu and his daughter. There may have been others. Rourke might be a danger, too. For all that he's locked away, if he discovers what power is still inside Alodia, he might try to exploit it. And on top of everything else, the Endless has charged us with bringing Dragonness back to earth, God only knows how. And all this is coming while Alodia is pregnant.

2:46am. 2:47am.

“...Jake?” I didn't even feel Alodia lift her head. I roll my gaze toward her and meet her eyes in the moonlight. She frowns at me, looking concerned. “Are you still awake?”

“Me? Nah. I'm just sleeping with my eyes open. And sleep-talking.” I grin nonchalantly, pressing a kiss to her forehead. She sighs and curls up again.

“There's no need to pretend, you know,” she chides mildly. “...I'm scared, too.”

It's my turn to sigh. “I ain't trying to pretend exactly...” I trail off, and stay silent for a long moment. Finally, I ask, “Which part is scaring you most?”

“...The idea of Rourke coming after me. ...Or after the baby...”

“...Do you think the baby might...?”

“I don't know. I could deal with that either way. ...But the thought of Rourke getting his claws into our child...”

I tighten my grip on her, feeling my jaw clench. “That ain't happening. Not on my watch. ...He ain't getting near you, either.”

Her hand finds mine, and she brings my fingers to her lips and kisses them. “Which part is scaring you most?”

“...This whole business about bringing Dragonness back to earth.”

“...Really? The thought of bringing my superhero cousin home scares you more than the idea of a megalomaniacal supervillain trying to use our child to take over the world?”

I snort. “When you put it like that, it sounds pretty bass-ackwards, don't it.” I feel the smile slip off my face. “...It's just that the threat feels more immediate than it does with Rourke.”

“What threat, though?”

“...I don't know. ...It seems pretty likely whatever power is in you is gonna be necessary to bring Dragonness back. ...I'm just scared it might harm you.”

“...The Endless wouldn't have been so insistent on bringing Dragonness back if the process was going to harm me. I know all those time loops made her pretty ruthless, but everything she ever did was to protect us. The Catalysts mean everything to her. ...And she was ready to let the world burn to keep me with you.”

“Yeah, I know. I don't think she'd intentionally harm you. ...But she's not omiscient. How many tries did it take her before we were able to survive a single day on La Huerta?”

“She isn't omniscient, it's true. But she knows we don't have the time loop anymore. I know myself, Jake. The Endless was me at my most ruthless, my most jaded, and she still couldn't encourage me to give myself back to Vaanu to save the families and friends of the people who mattered most to her. ...The Endless was selfish.”

“...The Endless wasn't going to be the one living in the Paradise she created,” I murmur.

“No. I was. Her alternate self. ...She could have saved everything, but she wasn't willing to trade her existence or mine to do it. ...She was willing to give up Vaanu and the world to keep us safe in a bubble for the rest of our lives.”

The bitterness and anger in her voice is honestly a little alarming. I bring a hand up to stroke the back of her head, twining the fingers of my other hand through hers.

“...Alodia...”

“...You weren't there at the Threshold, Jake. She never told me what I really was. She said it was up to me to decide. ...But I don't think she ever meant to give me the chance to give myself back. I think she was intending to destroy the crystal pillar to keep me from reaching it.” She sighs. “I'm...not saying she was evil or a bad person. Her world was small and lonely, and it never expanded beyond the eleven of you. But what she wanted was ultimately selfish.”

I exhale slowly, suddenly overcome with exhaustion. “...I dunno, Princess. Maybe you're right. All I know is that because of you, the world ain't on fire, but I also spent five years hurtin' worse than I hurt after I thought Mike died. ...It's been two months since I got you back, and it still feels like there's another threat around every corner...”

“I know, Jake. I know. I feel it, too.”

“...Makes me worry about what kinda life we're gonna bring our baby into.”

“Me too.”

“I mean, most parents worry about how to bring their kids up right, how to discipline without breaking them, how to give them love without spoiling them...what are we worried about? How to protect them from megalomaniacal supervillains.”

“...We're going to worry about the rest of it, too. Once all of this settles down, we're going to have all the same worries as every other new parent.”

Once it all settles down...if it all settles down...but I don't say that. No need to say what I know we're both thinking.

“...I love you,” I finally say. “...All I want is to know you're safe.”

“I love you, too.” Her words hang heavy in the air. I pull them over me like a blanket, wrapping myself in them. There was something she left unspoken. I know there was. But until she says it, I'm playing ignorant. I'd rather hold her in silence and drift back off under the blanket of her love then press her to let her fear creep in and ignite mine again. I've had enough of being afraid for one night.

 

Alodia

 

Four beams of light cut through the dark, dense jungle in front of me. On this part of the island, the air is blisteringly hot and sticky with humidity, even at night. I wipe a coating of sweat from my forehead, but my fingers are just as coated, and it doesn't help.

“Perfect weather for skeeters,” Jake mutters under his breath. “Yet ain't a one of us been bit. That ain't natural.”

“Apparently, you'd feel more comfortable if malaria were added to the list of our troubles,” Aleister grumbles. “Or at the least, unbearable itching.”

I ignore them, casting the beam of my flashlight at the dense foliage in front of me, desperately searching for any sign of life. But the jungle is eerily silent and still. I stop, biting my lip and choking back a sob. An arm sliding over my shoulder makes me jump.

“Hey,” Jake says softly, drawing me to his side. “We're gonna find her, Princess. She's gonna be okay.”

“Estela is stronger than all of us put together,” Grace agrees.

“She escaped my father's control,” Aleister adds. “She'll return to us.”

I briefly lean my head into Jake before looking over at Aleister. “Are you...okay? I mean, are you bearing up?”

He is quiet for a moment. “...My father has all but disinherited me in favor of a daughter I never knew he had. A daughter who would rather see him dead. ...Perhaps I should be more conflicted. ...But all I can really think about is getting to know my sister. ...If she will allow me to be her brother...”

“Once we find her, you'll be able to,” Grace assures him.

We make our way carefully down a slope toward the emergency shelter. At the bottom, Jake holds up a hand sharply, a signal we've all come to recognize. We stop moving, turn off our flashlights, and duck into the foliage. For a moment, we collectively hold our breath, listening to the distant rustling and snapping twigs as several bodies tramp through the rainforest. When the sounds die, Jake clicks his flashlight on again, nodding. We resume our search. Suddenly, Jake stops again.

“...Ohhh, shit...”

I follow the beam of his flashlight, and feel my belly twist and go cold. Blood, black and shiny in the moonlight, staining the leaves at his feet. There's a lot of it. Aleister picks up his pace, following the trail toward the shelter, the rest of us following suit. Finally, she appears within the circles of light expanding ahead of us, slumped against the derelict concrete wall. Blood stains the front of her shirt from her ribcage down to her waist. Our flashlight beams dance spasmodically over her as we break into a run. Jake reaches her first, dropping his flashlight as he goes to his knees and grips her shoulders. Estela laboriously lifts her head. As I draw closer, I realize that there is blood trickling down her left temple, tangling her hair and dripping off her jawline. Jake pulls off his jacket to tie it around the wound in her abdomen.

“Princess, call Papa Smurf and get the others here quick. This doesn't look good.” Estela whimpers in pain as he pulls his jacket tight against her wound. He takes her face gently in his hands, turning her to examine the wound on her head. “Jesus, Katniss, what the hell did you do? Rip that chip thing out with your bare hands?”

“W-wretched device,” she whispers. She moans, slumping against Jake. Tucking himself under her arm, he lifts her carefully into his arms. She cries out in agony, tears glistening on her eyelashes. I've already sent a thought to Varyyn, begging him to bring Michelle quickly. The thought he returns is simple—We're coming—but his mind is steady and calm, contrasting sharply with my own panic. Jake jerks his head toward the shelter.

“Come on. We gotta get her someplace less exposed.”

Inside the emergency shelter, we hunker down just shy of the door. Jake places Estela carefully on the ground and I cradle her head on my lap, brushing gingerly at the strands of hair plastered to her forehead with sweat and blood.

“Aleister...” she croaks. Aleister hesitates before coming to kneel beside her.

“I...I am here, Estela...”

Her hand shoots out to grasp his wrist. She visibly summons her strength and turns her head, her dark eyes locking with his.

“D-don't let Rourke get his hands...on Alodia...”

Aleister blinks, hazarding a glance at me. “I...I won't. I don't plan on letting him get his hands on anyone.”

“Promise me! You...know what he's capable of...more than anyone...”

“I...I promise...”

“What he'll do...with her...” Estela grits her teeth, her expression contorting as she moans. “...He'll claim us, Aleister...he'll...claim us both...and our mothers with us...”

 

With a start, I open my eyes in the gray predawn light filtering into my beach house bedroom. Jake grunts, shifting slightly at my movement, but he doesn't wake up. Trembling, I screw my eyes shut, nestling into him and willing my heartbeat to slow back to normal. I'm determined not to wake him. Down the hall, Diego is cuddled up with Varyyn in their own bedroom. I won't wake them, either. They're all worn out. And they're going to need their rest.

The big thing to remember, Alodia, Michelle had said during our emergency group call, is that we're going to protect you. That's a promise. And no arguing. The Endless herself charged us with keeping you safe.

They're going to protect me. I won't try to stop them. They're going to fight for me. I'll allow it. But I'll be damned if I let them die for me.

...Don't be reckless, my daughter...

The voice comes from somewhere deep in my subconscious mind, and brings with it a violent sickness roiling through my midsection. I scramble clumsily out of bed and stumble to the bathroom, barely pushing the lid of the toilet up in time before the contents of my stomach come spilling out of my mouth. I try to retch and choke as quietly as possible, but I probably already managed to wake my husband when I struggled out of bed. He kneels beside me, calm as he draws my hair back from my face.

“I'm here, Princess. You're okay.”

I can't answer him. I'm just dry-heaving, but it's violent enough to send paralyzing spasms through my limbs. My fingers are rigid on the outside of the toilet bowl, every inch of me slick with sweat. I can't verbally answer my husband. But my mind is clear.

Father? Are you actually speaking to me?

Yes, my sweet girl. I'm here.

How can I be hearing you? You're dead...or...free...I don't understand...

Everything in its own time. ...Just let them protect you, my darling. For the sake of your child.

...Father...I'm scared...

… I love you, my child.

“...I'm scared...” I hear myself whimper. The spasms are settling. The strength is bleeding out of me. I feel myself going limp as Jake draws me back into his arms.

“It's okay,” he murmurs, kissing my hair. “Remember, Michelle says the morning sickness should be calming down pretty soon.”

I shake my head weakly. “...That's not what scares me.”

“...I know.” He is quiet for a moment. “...I'm here, Alodia. I love you so much. ...Tell me what you need from me. Please. Just tell me what I can do.”

I sigh, nestling into his arms. I close my eyes, resting my head on his chest. “...You're doing it. ...I love you, Jake. ...Just stay with me. Stay with me, and I know everything will be okay.”

 

Grayson

 

In the living room of Rochelle Rogers' apartment, an untouched cup of coffee on the scarred sidetable to my right, I lean forward in a well-worn chintz armchair, propping my elbows on my knees and letting my chin rest on top of my folded hands. Rochelle, Dax, and Poppy are squished together on the loveseat across from me. I've been silent for a long time, long enough to let Rochelle get everything out. But now, they're waiting for me to respond.

“...So...let me get this straight: to get Tahira back from an alternate dimension, we need this Alodia person. And to get this Alodia person, we need to get through eleven other people.”

“...That's...about the long and short of it,” Dax confirms. “...Right, Rochelle?”

“Yes. That's basically it.”

“You don't seem all that surprised by Tahira's identity,” Poppy blurts out. Her expression is wary, and for some reason, that strikes me as comical. I bite my cheek to keep from laughing.

“I'm not. I'm embarrassed to say it took me until the day my dad destroyed the city to figure it out, but I did.” My mirth evaporates as quickly as it came. “But...I'm not sure how I can help. I don't know anything about the Prism Gate. Dax is the expert there.”

“The old woman said you'd be able to help if I told you the crystal's origins.”

“...Which are...?”

“Your mother found it on the island of La Huerta when you were a baby. Your parents went there with...Everett Rourke. So that your father could help him scope out the site for his new resort.”

“...Rourke...” I frown, feeling my brain making connections. “...Hang on a second.” I pull out my phone and open up a search.

“What are you doing?” Dax asks.

“...I'm just wondering, Rochelle. Do you think this woman might have been referring to Alodia Chandler?”

“Wait...where have I heard that name?” Poppy wonders aloud.

“Alodia Chandler was the eleventh winner of the Hartfeld University raffle hosted by Rourke International,” I explain, turning my phone over to hand it to her. “...More than that, though, she's the one who didn't make it back with the others. Everyone basically assumed Rourke killed her.”

“Until a couple months ago, when she was found alive,” Dax finishes. “...Right around the time everything started going crazy here.”

“The old woman said Alodia is Tahira's cousin,” Rochelle says softly.

I hold out my hand to Poppy, and she passes my phone back to me. I am quiet for a moment as I scan the news articles on the screen. Finally, I nod. “I think I know where to start.”

* * *

Rourke International's presence in Northbridge is small. Just a suite in an office building on the outskirts of the city. But it has a conference room that is easily reserved, and it's as close to neutral territory as the Rourke siblings and I can get within the city limits. Frankly, I'm lucky they agreed to meet me within the city limits at all, especially since I told them that I was requesting this meeting with regards to the Prism Crystal and its origins. I did not want to give too much away over the phone, but I admitted that the crystal came from their father's private island. I wasn't sure how interested they would be otherwise.

I take Rochelle with me. Dax and Poppy stay behind, but Rochelle and I are both wearing microphones and earpieces at Dax's insistence. He doesn't want to miss anything that might be potentially important. I'm actually grateful he insisted. Dad always said I lacked the ruthlessness for real business negotiation. I've always disagreed with his assessment, but now that Tahira is on the line, the stakes are higher than ever, and I confess to feeling nervous. Besides, anything to do with the Prism Crystal is firmly Dax and Rochelle's territory. And with Rochelle having been detatched from the project for twenty-five years, Dax's knowledge is going to be invaluable.

We arrive at the office complex and step into the elevator. Rochelle has been silent for most of the trip here, but when the elevator dings, I hear the subtle increase in her breath rate. I reach over to put a hand on her shoulder.

“...It's going to be okay.”

“How many of them are going to be there?”

“Aleister Rourke only confirmed that he and his sister would be present, but I never gave him a limit on how many people to bring.”

“...There are eleven people standing between us and the one person we need to bring Tahira back.”

“And after today, it will be nine. ...Possibly fewer if he happens to bring along anyone else.”

“Are we sure about that? Are we sure we can convince them to help us?”

I am quiet longer than I should be. I want to tell her yes. I want to project total confidence. Dad would be scolding me for doing any less if he were here. But I can't bring myself to do that to her, to treat Rochelle like an idiot child when it's her daughter's life we're fighting for.

“...Tahira is alive, Rochelle. As long as she is alive, we have to fight for her.”

Rochelle lets out a shuddering breath and nods. “...Of course. You're right. ...Thank you, Grayson.”

“Of course.”

The elevator dings again and the doors slide open. We step out into a plain, undecorated hallway. Two tall, muscular young men stand in front of the conference room door, dressed in plain white T-shirts and jeans with sunglasses covering their eyes. The slightly shorter one turns his face toward me.

“Grayson Prescott?”

“That's me. And this is my associate Rochelle Rogers.”

The other man frowns slightly. “...Rogers?”

I blink. “Yes, that's right. And you are...?”

“...Security.” A different voice answers my question, masculine, with a lilting. upper-class English accent. I turn to see a slim, pale young man in a crisp suit approaching from the other end of the hallway. He smiles politely holding his hand out to me. “Everett Aleister Rourke II. A pleasure to meet you.”

I accept his hand, shaking it. “Grayson Prescott. I am certain we must have met before, back when your father and mine were...friendlier rivals.”

I see his smile twitch slightly. “Yes, I am sure we must have. But alas, as long ago as that was, I fear I do not remember.” He turns his attention to Rochelle, shaking her hand. “You are Rochelle Rogers?”

“Yes. ...I was an employee of Grayson's father for many years. I worked on the original design for the Prism Gate twenty-five years ago.”

“I see. Well, let's not discuss business in the hallway. Everyone else has already settled inside. I was just returning from the toilet. They're located just at the end of the hallway if you'd like to make use before we begin?”

We both decline, and he shows us into the room. It's clearly designed to be used by any company that utilizes this building, regardless of their size. The table is massive, somewhat comically dwarfing the three woman lined up on one side at the far end. They rise to greet us as Rochelle and I make our way to the other side of the table.

The first is a lithe, dark-haired woman with a scar over one eye, easily recognizable, but Aleister introduces her anyway: “My sister and business partner, Estela Montoya.” As Estela shakes our hands, he gestures to the other two women. “My wife, Grace Hall; and my chief of security, Zahra Namazi.”

I shake their hands, taking them in. I can't help but feel the Rourke siblings are posturing a little, particularly with the two bodyguards outside. Estela Montoya basically wears power like a second skin, and Aleister Rourke's public presence is not that different from what his father's used to be; that is, cool, easy, charming, and always giving the impression that he already knows everyone's next move. The Rourke siblings don't have to work very hard to dominate any room they're in. And yet, outside this room are two men who look like they could snap me in half. And inside...well...inside, we have Grace Hall and Zahra Namazi. By the look of her, Grace's name is well-chosen, and her bohemian style of dress lends her a gentle, maternal quality. But behind her glasses, the look in her eyes reminds me why mothers shouldn't be trifled with. Zahra, meanwhile, looks at us as in a way that makes me think she's the one holding the leashes of the two bodyguards outside. Clearly, they believe a game of high stakes is about to be played here.

I clear my throat. “Well...I suppose we should just...dive right in, if everyone is ready.”

“Indeed,” Estela agrees. “Well, since you were the one who called us here, perhaps you would like to start?”

“Very well. As I mentioned over the phone, I'm here about the crystal that powered the Prism Gate. Specifically, the fact that I have recently been informed that it came from La Huerta.”

“Yes. Our family's private island.”

“It was not private at the time,” I counter. “That is, it was privately owned by your father, yes. But he was already intending to open it to tourists. My father and mother were there helping him survey the site for his famous resort. My mother, a passionate archeologist, discovered the crystal and brought it back as a souvenier. ...She didn't intend any harm. She never expected it would be missed.”

“It wasn't,” Estela replies flatly. She pins me with her dark, steely gaze. “There were plenty more.”

“Grayson!” I can't stop myself from wincing as Dax's voice suddenly sounds in my ear, shrill with panic. “Something's jam--ing my—signa--”

His voice cuts out suddenly. All four pairs of eyes glare daggers at us across the table. Zahra lifts her hand above the table, revealing a small silver orb cradled in her fingers. She sets it on the table, stroking it almost lovingly with the tip of her index finger.

“Who was planning on listening in?” she demands icily. “We're not big fans of spies.”

“Hold on!” I protest. “No one here is a spy!”

“Then why were you bugged?” Grace snaps.

Before I can come up with a plausible explanation, Rochelle leaps to her feet, wringing her hands.

“Please!” she cries. “This is for my daughter!”

The four across the table all pin her with a collective gaze.

“...Your daughter?” Grace repeats, her tone carefully casual, like a therapist asking, How do you feel about that?

Rochelle meets Grace's eyes steadily. “...I am the mother of Dragonness. I am here because an old woman with a bionic hand told me that the Eleven Catalysts stood between me and the person whose help I need to bring her back home. Are you going to help me or not?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Rochelle

 

Though they try to keep their reactions to a minimum, I can tell that my words have had an effect on the four in front of me. My heart is wedged in my throat, and I can feel myself trembling, but I don't back down, don't take my eyes off of Grace. She's going to be my biggest ally here, I'm sure of it. She's a mother, too. But it's her husband who first breaks the silence.

“...You are Tahira Rogers' mother.”

I look sharply at Aleister, too startled to pretend I'm not. “...How...?”

He waves a hand dismissively. “Never mind how we know. We do know, and we have known for awhile. We're not interested in exploiting her. But we are interested in getting her home.”

I frown, slowly sitting back down. “...The...the old woman...I never learned her name...”

“Her name wouldn't mean anything to you. She's only a messenger. In any case, she's dead now, so let's leave her in peace for the moment.” He looks back at Grayson. “Would you kindly tell us who you have listening in on our conversation?”

Grayson sizes Aleister up for a moment. “Dax Darcisse. An engineer who worked on the most recent version of the Prism Gate. And Poppy Patel. A close friend of Tahira's. They both worked very closely with her as Dragonness.”

Aleister seems to consider this for a moment. He looks over at Zahra, who shrugs. “It's your call, boss. Yours and Estela's.”

“...I trust your judgment here, Aleister,” Estela declares. “But for my part, I'd rather not have any secrets.”

“Hmm. ...Iris, are you able to commandeer the signal and patch us in?”

Before I can ask, the sphere under Zahra's fingers lights up. A beam of blue light flickers out from a tiny lens on its side, taking the shape of a blue-tinted, holographic woman in the center of the table. I feel my mouth hanging open.

“Audio feed...found,” she chirps. “No video feed available.”

“That's all right,” Aleister assures her. “We'll work with what we've got.”

Suddenly, although it is the hologram's lips that are moving, it's Dax's voice coming out of them.

“Grayson! Rochelle! I've got my signal back, I think. One of you cough twice if you can hear me!”

“We can hear you, Dax,” Grayson says. “...And...so can everyone else.”

“It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Dax,” Aleister says. “I am Everett Aleister Rourke the Second. But please, call me Aleister.”

“...Wha...?”

“And I am Estela Montoya Rourke,” his sister adds. “Your signal was discovered by our chief of security. In a situation as delicate as this, we would rather everyone hearing the conversation have equal opportunity to be involved in it.”

“Wish you could see this,” Grayson remarks. “It's wild. They have a hologram woman speaking in your voice. It's like Singin' in the Rain. But more high-tech.”

“Uh...well...I...”

“It's okay, Dax,” Grayson assures him. “Estela is right. ...Even if we're not laying all our cards on the table right now, we should at least be open enough not to have anyone listening in without the other party knowing. ...We are going to be speaking some secrets after all.”

“I quite agree,” Grace says. “I am Grace Hall Rourke, by the way. I'm Aleister's wife. Zahra, will you introduce yourself?”

“Yo. I'm Zahra. The afforementioned security chief.”

“...I'm Poppy...” Poppy says, her voice coming from the hologram's lips. “...I'm listening, too.”

“All right. Now with all of that out of the way, we can return to business.” Aleister looks at Grayson again. “To recap a little: we are aware of the origins of the Prism Crystal. We are aware of Dragonness's civilian identity. We know who the old woman with the bionic hand is, but as she is dead, I don't think there is any need to say much more about her right now.”

It takes me a moment to reorient myself, to remember what we were talking about before we briefly lost contact with Dax. I clear my throat.

“...Mr. Prescott didn't think Mr. Rourke was aware of the crystals on La Huerta...”

“Oh, but he was, Ms. Rogers,” Aleister sighs. “I assure you he was. ...The fact of the matter is that while I'm sure Silas Prescott knew more about what the Prism Crystal is capable of than he let on to anyone, including his own scientists, there is a limit to what knowledge he could have attained outside of the island. The Prism Crystal is...was...is...just a fraction of a much larger puzzle. And in the grand scheme of things, its power is small. Limited.”

“...Our goal was to unlock its power for the betterment of mankind,” I murmur. “To create a world where everyone was provided for.”

“I am sure that was your goal,” Aleister says gently.

“It was his, too,” I insist. “...At least...at first. ...Something changed after he lost his wife, though.”

Aleister regards me quietly for a moment. “...Perhaps you are right. But by the time the Prism Gate was unveiled a few months ago, I have no doubt his goal had changed. Mr. Darcisse, you worked on the most recent version of the Prism Gate, correct? Did anything you were asked to do ever suggest a purpose other than the one he gave to the public?”

“...Not as such, no. The first time I ever saw it do anything at all was when Tahira first approached it.”

“What happened then?”

“It...reacted. I don't know how else to describe it, except that while it had always seemed perfectly stable before, it suddenly...wasn't. Suddenly, its energy levels started rising and falling erratically, and it started...flickering.”

“...Ms. Rogers,” Estela cuts in. “This may seem like a personal question, but I have to ask it: are you Tahira's biological mother?”

I look sharply at her. “...Why would you ask me that?”

“...You're looking for someone, and the Eleven Catalysts are in your way. ...If you know the first thing about the person you are looking for and why that person can help you, then you know why I am asking you whether you conceived Tahira, either naturally or artificially.”

I am quiet a moment. Even though my struggles to conceive the child I wanted so desperately are a quarter of a century old by now, remembering them is still a knife in my heart. Working for Silas Prescott, I had more than enough money to try every available option, but I still didn't have a partner to struggle with me. When the sperm of anonymous donor after anonymous donor failed to fashion life within me, I had to cry alone. When my first attempt at IVF didn't take, when my second resulted in a miscarriage, friends were sympathetic, but there was no one sharing my disappointment, my frustration. Applying to be an adoptive parent was its own struggle. But the feeling of finally being approved was so exciting and terrifying and beautiful that it reminded me of that one and only positive pregnancy test two years prior. And then the day I finally received the papers proclaiming that the foundling child in my arms was legally mine...

I try to focus on that feeling when I reply, “...No. I am not Tahira's biological mother. She...legally, she was a foundling, whom I fostered and then adopted.”

I hesitate for only a moment before I slowly and carefully lay out the whole story for them, the way I told it to Tahira only a month or so ago in the kitchen of my apartment, the apartment where she had grown up. I tell them about the things that came through the portal, prism-based matter unlike anything found on earth. How sometime after Helena Prescott's death, I was alone in the lab late at night when I suddenly heard an infant wailing and found a naked baby girl at the foot of the Prism Gate. ...How I fostered her and immediately began looking for a job in academia, handing in my resignation as soon as I knew she was legally mine.

“...The old woman...she...” I trail off, hesitating. “...I'm sorry, could I please just know her name? It feels strange calling her 'the old woman'.”

The four across the table exchange glances. Finally, Grace says, “We knew her as the Endless.”

I sigh. That isn't much less odd than the Old Woman, but if that is what she called herself, who am I to argue. “The Endless said that her biological parents sent her through the portal to save her life. That it was my longing for a child combined with their need to save theirs that allowed her to pass through the Prism Gate.”

I see a subtle shift in their posture and expressions; a softening, tinged with sorrow. A shared look passes between them, and there is something so loving in their eyes that I feel my throat tighten. They collectively nod, and the gesture is somehow deep with understanding.

“...What else did the Endless tell you? About the person you're looking for?”

“Her name is Alodia. And she is Tahira's biological cousin. And that to get to Alodia, I have to go through the Eleven Catalysts.”

The four of them start exchanging glances, nods, and shrugs again. Finally, Estela speaks again.

“We are four of the Eleven Catalysts. That makes us the first hurdle you need to cross. The thing is...as we said before, the Prism Crystal is one piece of a much larger puzzle. There is a lot that we could tell you about that puzzle. We and the other Catalysts spent six months on La Huerta, up to our necks in its mysteries, and they've followed us like ghosts ever since.”

“You are looking for Alodia,” Grace continues. “Your daughter's cousin. She is a very big piece of La Huerta's mysteries, and by extension, the Prism Crystal's mysteries. ...She is also more precious to us than gold.”

“We want to bring Dragonness home,” Aleister says. “The Endless encouraged us to help you. But she also warned us to be very careful who we trust.”

“Basically, we're not gonna give you Alodia until we're sure we can trust you,” Zahra concludes. “And if you give us any reason to think you're gonna hurt her, we'll throw you to a pack of wolves.”

“We don't want to hurt anyone,” Grayson says firmly.

“I'm sure you don't,” Aleister says placatingly. “However. Before we can take matters further, we need something from you.”

“...What do you need?”

Zahra slides a tablet across the table toward us. There is an image on the screen, of something in a display case, a small gold-colored statue. It's vaguely familiar to me. I think I've seen it in Mr. Prescott's private collection. Grayson clearly recognizes it.

“...The...idol from my father's collection? ...Do you know what it is?”

“We know what it is,” Zahra confirms. “We want it, and any others like it that you know of.”

“I only know of the one. ...What is it?”

“It is something else that was taken from La Huerta. Another piece of its mystery.” After pausing thoughtfully for a moment, Estela adds, “It's called the Cygnus Idol.”

“Cygnus? As in swans?”

“Correct.”

“...What is it for?”

“That is not for you to know,” Estela says firmly. “Not yet. Possibly not ever. What you need to know now is that it belongs to the Catalysts, and we want it back.”

I feel Grayson bristling beside me, and I don't blame him. “And what would we get in exchange? Access to Alodia?”

Estela narrows her eyes. “You'll get the continued hope of ever getting access to Alodia,” she answers lowly. “Or you will get nothing.”

“You must be very sure you've got us over a barrel if you're willing to go all or nothing over that idol,” Grayson says coldly. “I thought you wanted to help us get Tahira back.”

“Let's neither of us pretend we're less invested than we are. Alodia and Tahira are both more valuable to both our parties than the idol is to either. But here is the difference: Your party loves Tahira, needs Alodia to bring Tahira back, and has no use for the idol. Our party is fighting for Tahira because the Endless told us to fight for her. Our party loves Alodia as much as yours loves Tahira, and we're not willing to put her in harm's way. Our party also knows what the idol is, what its purpose is, and we value it enough that its safe return can be your passport just a little bit deeper into our world.”

“...How much deeper?”

“...Give us the idol, and...” she pauses a moment, considering, “...four days. Then we'll introduce you to two more Catalysts. ...And we may have a little more information for you regarding La Huerta.”

I grit my teeth, balling up fistfuls of my skirt in my lap. Grayson sighs.

“You clearly mean to turn this into Homer's Odyssey,” he grumbles.

“Unfortunately, it was our father who first taunted the gods,” Aleister sighs ruefully. “And yours. You, Rochelle, the Catalysts, even Tahira and Alodia...we're just the ones bearing the consequences.”

“Well...you are correct when you say that I don't have any use for that idol. But there is a problem: the idol was stolen at the Prescott Masquerade a couple weeks ago.”

“We know,” Estela replies. “And given the thief's methods, her identity seems pretty obvious. At least, her public identity. She almost certainly intended to sell the idol.”

“Unless she intended to repurpose the amber its made of.”

“She might end up with a pretty nasty surprise if she tried that. ...I suggest you start looking in pawn shops.”

Grayson arches an eyebrow. “You couldn't do that yourselves?”

“The name Rourke doesn't have nearly the clout in this city as Prescott. Besides, consider this a gesture of good faith on your part.”

“...Besides that,” Dax adds, “I actually know where to start. ...What if we were to leave it here for now, while I track down the idol?”

After a few minutes, we all reluctantly agree to Dax's suggestion. I don't want to leave without getting a little more out of the Catalysts. But I can see they are going to be as difficult as the Endless. Still, as we're being shown out, I take a chance and lay a hand on Grace's arm, capturing her gaze with mine.

“...Please. ...I know you're trying to protect someone important to you. But please, as all of this goes on, don't forget that this is about bringing my child home.”

Grace purses her lips, nodding curtly. “I'm not going to forget. I promise.”

And I believe her. But I also believe that she will still throw me to the wolves if I give her any reason to think I mean to hurt Alodia. We are both mothers, and we understand each other. But whoever this Alodia is, she will always be more important to Grace than my daughter.

 

Sean

 

Craig and I keep up the bodyguard act until Aleister has seen Grayson Prescott and Rochelle Rogers into the elevator. As soon as I'm sure they're on their way to the lobby, I slip off the sunglasses and rub my eyes.

“So, how did it go in there?”

Aleister turns back to us, his lips pursed tightly. “I'm not entirely sure,” he replies. “Estela struck a bargain I was only half-expecting.”

“Uh...what?”

“Come inside. We'll fill you two in.”

Craig and I follow him back into the conference room, where he and the women sum up the meeting for us.

“I'm assuming...Craig and I are the two other Catalysts you intend to introduce at the next meeting?” I ask Estela. She nods.

“Provided they come through with the Cygnus idol.”

“What I am wondering is what you plan to do over those four days you asked for,” Aleister says. “And what other information you think we ought to give them.”

“The information we give them will depend on what we find out over those four days,” Estela replies. “...Eventually, I think we're not going to have a choice except to bring Alodia to Northbridge. But I'd like it if we could keep her out of the city as long as possible.”

“No one is going to argue with you there,” I agree.

“But we also need to figure out how much power the idol still has. Grayson says he only knows of the Cygnus idol, but who knows if more of them somehow managed to escape the time bubble. So, I think once we have the idol in hand, Grace should fly to California with it. To test it.”

Grace nods slowly. “...Okay, that's probably doable...”

“...I figure we'll give them some version of what the idols are, and what they're for. We can decide exactly how much to tell them when we know whether the idol is still...functional.”

“What concerns me,” Aleister murmurs, “are the implications if the idol does happen to be functional.”

“We won't be able to deal with that until we know. And we won't know until Grace, Alodia, and the idol are in a room together. And maybe by then we'll know a little more about Grayson Prescott's motives.”

 

Dax

 

“What?! No! No way!”

Eva scowls at me, crossing her arms over her chest. She looks like a child about to throw a tantrum, which is not a look I am used to seeing on her. I can't really enjoy it, though, considering what she's protesting. I scowl back.

“I'm just asking where you sold it! I'm not asking you to turn yourself in or return the money, just direct us so that we can buy it back!”

“I can't!”

“Why the heck not?!”

Eva squirms, whining a little and pouting. “...Because I never actually sold it,” she mutters.

“...Wait, what?”

“I never got around to it, okay?! I didn't have time, what with Tahira recruiting me to team Goody Two-Shoes!”

“Well, that's even better!” Poppy declares brightly. “Just give it to us, and we'll get it to the Rourkes!”

“If I give it to you, I won't get it back.”

“Well, no. You wouldn't.”

“It's worth a lot of money, you know.”

“Is it worth more than Tahira?” I snap. “Because that's what you're saying if you refuse to give it to us!”

Eva groans. “Ugh! Fine. They can have the stupid thing. But only because it's for Tahira!”

* * *

At The Grand, in the hours before opening, Poppy and I join Grayson and Rochelle to meet with the Rourke entourage again. The siblings are there, plus Aleister's wife, and their security chief. Also, the two beefed up bodyguards Grayson mentioned. Not that they're really necessary. I think Estela Montoya could take us all on herself. She's the one who steps forward, her dark eyes narrowed sternly as she takes each of us in.

“Do you have it?”

Grayson hands her the crushed velvet drawstring bag containing the small amber idol. Estela opens the bag and draws out the idol. The expressions on the faces of the Rourke entourage are honestly a little unsettling. Clearly the idol is more than just a piece of pretty to them. They treat it with reverence, and a little bit of fear. ...And sorrow, I think. Grace swallows hard as Estela passes it to her, eyes shimmering behind her glasses.

“...Thank you,” Estela says softly. “We will meet with you again in four days. Right here, at the same time, and we'll have the next two Catalysts with us.”

“...Just like that?” I blurt out.

“You brought us the idol, didn't you?”

“Well, yes. It's right there. I mean...” I feel suddenly nervous. I can feel my cheeks growing warm under her stern gaze. I should stop talking. “...That...is what you're looking for, right?”

“Unless you've tried to trick us with a forgery,” she replies, raising an eyebrow at me.

“What?! No! Of course not!”

A hint of a smirk tugs at the corner of her mouth. Behind her, Zahra snorts with barely concealed laughter. I'm not sure, but it feels like good laughter.

“There is no artist, no sculpter, no jewel-cutter within your reach who could craft a forgery that would fool a Catalyst,” Estela informs me. “None of them would have access to amber like the stuff this idol was cut from. You've upheld your end of the bargain. We'll uphold ours. But we need four days. Same time, same place, four days from now.”

 

Diego

 

“...I don't like this,” Jake says for the umpteenth time as he paces the living room of the beach house.

“I don't like it either,” Allie replies irritably. “I feel like I'm waiting to learn if our baby has a heartbeat all over again. Or waiting to see if those tests I had in Northbridge reveal anything that would give me away...”

“...Or waiting to hear if the judge would rule in my favor,” Jake murmurs. Allie shudders.

“Exactly. Now would you kindly stop wearing holes in the floor? Come hold me, okay?” She holds her arms out to her husband, who obediently comes to sit beside her on the couch. She sinks down to lay her head on his lap, letting him run his fingers through her cornsilk hair. Varyyn comes up behind my chair and places his powerful hands on my shoulders, massaging them absently. The gesture startles me slightly, but it's hard not to relax into his expert touch.

“Ohhh, god, that's amazing...” I mumble, feeling my eyes roll back slightly. I guess my expression must be pretty comical, because Allie actually cracks a small smile watching me.

“Careful, Varyyn. Your husband looks like he's going to turn into jelly there.”

“I absolutely am,” I agree, letting my eyes fall closed. “Keep it up, sweetheart.”

“...Is there really a possibility that the idol will be functional?” Varyyn wonders aloud. Allie grimaces.

“Please don't use that word. The Endless used that word to describe an idol whose Catalyst was alive. ...A non-functional idol meant that someone was dead.”

Varyyn's hands pause for just an instant. “...Active, then. Is there truly a chance it will be active?”

“I don't know. This is uncharted territory. I thought the idols were all basically destroyed at the Threshold. I don't know exactly how this one is still around, I don't know what it will mean if it is still active.”

The elegant chime of the front doorbell reverberates through the house. Allie sits up sharply. Jake puts a hand on her shoulder.

“That'll be Mike with Grace and Aleister. I got it.” Even as he says that, we all follow him into the front foyer anyway. He opens the door, admitting our friends. Tellingly, neither Grace nor Aleister gawk at the grandeur of the Fishers' beach house, where Allie and I are currently living with our husbands. It's probably not much different from the homes they grew up in as the children of CEO's.

“Come in, please,” Allie says, her smile a little too bright. “Can I offer you anything? Coffee? Tea? Water? Lemonade? Soda? Beer?”

“Tea would be lovely,” Aleister says.

“Just water,” Mike adds.

“I'll take a lemonade,” Grace says.

“Diego, Varyyn, why don't you show them to the living room, and I'll give Alodia a hand in the kitchen.” I nod at Jake, doing as he tells me, but I can't help throwing a worried look over my shoulder.

“...It's not inactive,” Grace murmurs as soon as we're in the living room. “Being so close to Alodia, I can already tell. ...It's calling me, just like it did then.”

Aleister and I exchange glances. We both know the feeling. The weird tingling and itching in the back of the mind, the feeling that's almost like being watched, a pull toward the idol that's like a siren's song, or a cry for help that you can't ignore. It seemed to calm down slightly once Allie had touched the idol with us. That was another thing we all agreed later was a fact of the idols: they kept calling, kept stirring us until we handed them to our leader, once we'd both had our hands on the amber at the same time. Once she had been shown what she needed to see, the feeling that followed was a euphoric sense of relief. ...At least...for the Catalyst depicted by the idol. For Allie it had to have been a nightmare. Even before I knew what the idols were showing her, I had seen the strain. The way she flinched at the slightest noise, crying at the drop of a hat. At one point, I was honestly afraid the stress was going to kill her, if not the island itself.

She's smiling when she and Jake come back with everyone's drinks, the same falsely bright smile as before, but it's starting to waver.

“I haven't been able to get enough of this lemonade,” she remarks as she passes a glass of the stuff to Grace and sets another one down in front of herself. “You can tell me if it's actually any good, or if it's probably just a pregnancy craving...”

“Um...Allie?” I catch her eye and she flushes guiltily. In spite of Jake and Grace leaving a space between them for her on the couch, she's chosen to sit in one of the armchairs. Jake pats the cushion beside him.

“Come sit by me, Princess,” he says gently. “Let's get this over with.”

She looks so small and scared as she slinks over to the couch that I feel like I could cry. I would come hold her hand, but Jake seems to have that covered, and she'll need at least one hand free to touch the idol. Jake slides his arm around her waist and twines the fingers of his other hand through hers.

“It's okay,” he murmurs into her hair. “I'm right here.”

She nods slowly, drawing in a deep breath. “...I'm ready.” It's a lie, but I think she knows she's never really going to be ready. Grace draws the idol out of her bag and holds it up between them. Steeling herself, Allie lifts a hand to delicately lay a finger on its amber surface. It's only a second before she snatches her hand away. I don't even need to ask if she saw anything. I can see the tears forming in her eyes, and my heart sinks. She curls into Jake, trembling and whimpering. He clutches her to him, rocking her and murmuring into her hair.

“...What did you see?” Grace dares to ask. It takes a moment for Allie to answer, but finally, she sits up, wiping her eyes.

“...Nothing new. It's the same as it was before. I suppose that was the timeline where the Endless...where she...extracted blood to form the psychic link...”

“...What happened? ...To me, I mean...”

“Grace...” Aleister murmurs. “Are you sure you want to...?”

“I'm just curious. I can't help being a little curious.”

“...You were trying to disarm a bomb somewhere under Mount Atropo. But...” She trails off, swallowing. “...You panicked...”

Grace's expression is a little hard to read, but there's something like disappointment in her eyes. “Oh...”

Abruptly, Allie breaks away from Jake to pull Grace into a crushing embrace. Grace squeaks in surprise, but she brings her arms up to hug back.

“Jesus God, Grace!” Allie sobs. “How the hell did it take so long for anyone to tell you how incredible you are?! All those people you had pushing and pressing you to be better and smarter and aim higher, and not one of them ever thought to tell you they were glad just to know you?! Didn't anyone realize how lucky they were that you were in their lives at all?!”

“...I did...” Aleister says softly.

Through her tears, Allie glares at him over Grace's shoulder. “And how long did it take you to tell her as much?”

“Far too long,” he readily admits, cracking a wry smile.

“You're so precious, Grace. All your virtues and vices and strengths and weaknesses and talents and flaws are miracles.”

Grace rubs Allie's back gently. “...Thank you, Alodia...” she whispers, her voice thick with tears. For a long time, everyone is silent. It's Mike who finally breaks it, clearing his throat.

“So...what did we actually learn here?”

Allie releases Grace, sitting back carefully. “...We learned that the idol is still active, even though the Endless is dead. But it didn't tell me anything new, so it hasn't been...repurposed.”

Aleister nods, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “...What was it the Endless said about the power inside the Prism Crystal? That it was your life energy within? Or a piece of it, anyway?”

“That's right,” she confirms. “A piece of my life energy fused with the crystal on the day I was born inside the time bubble. ...I would guess that's why it survived while the rest of the crystals were taken back with Vaanu.”

“...I wonder,” Varyyn murmurs, “...If that is how Elyys'tel and the guardians were able to survive?”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well...consider the fact that Elyys'tel, and indeed all of La Huerta, was nurtured by the Island's Heart, which contained Vaanu's consciousness. ...Deprived of nurture, surely Elyys'tel would have withered by now. The timelines merged and the anomalies were removed, but Murphy and T'kal and the Vaanti still survived. If that piece of Vaanu's true daughter was left behind, small though it was, perhaps it was enough...”

“...Then...I am supposed to be here...” Allie murmurs.

“I don't think anyone here is going to argue with that,” Grace replies.

“No...but you see, I was always supposed to be here. Even in the timeline where I didn't exist before the island, there was a timeline where I did. It's why Diego had such vivid memories of our childhood together, even though it didn't exist yet. Why he was able to imagine me in such detail. It's why Sean could remember seeing me doing handstands in the bleachers at Hartfeld Stadium.” She starts to laugh. The sound is a little wild, but it's also so genuinely joyful that I feel like it's lifting a weight off my chest that's been there since she first turned up on the beach. “I was phase-shifting! For twenty-two years, I was phase-shifting! Until the right circumstances, the right set of decisions finally stabilized the timelines.”

“...Such as you finally making the decision to join with Vaanu so that he could escape his prison,” Aleister muses. “Which allowed him to assume human form so that he could sire you in the repaired timeline. ...But you still had to make that decision within the time bubble to exist outside of it.”

She nods. “My consciousness was sealed in that crystal. ...I suppose I was broken the same way Vaanu was, if not as dramatically. ...Maybe it's more akin to the way your mother was preserved as Iris.” She looks absently down at her hands as she speaks, flexing her fingers. “That crystal preserved my consciousness until it came in contact with someone from my alien family. And...somehow, that connection was able to bring me back.”

“But you were still kinda phase-shifting for awhile there,” I muse. “I mean, the first hint I got you were coming back was a picture of us as kids, and when I asked Mama about it, she couldn't even remember your name. But by the time you were physically back in Riverside, she was talking about praying to San Antonio every year to bring you back and yelling at us for going swimming instead of telling her you were alive.”

She meets my eyes and smiles. “Of course. My alien family may have given me the physical ability to come back, but only my human family all gathered together could actually allow me to manifest. Only the people who first willed me into being could finally will me back once the conditions were right for it.”

“Perhaps Estela was right,” Aleister murmurs. “There is some magic left on La Huerta after all.”

“Don't matter to me how it happened,” Jake declares, drawing Allie into his arms. “All I care about is that you're with me.”

She closes her eyes, nestling into his embrace. “...Right where I'm supposed to be.”

* * *

Grace and Aleister clear out by the evening. They don't have time to linger. They've got an important task back in Northbridge, making sure that in the quest to bring Dragonness home, no one gets to Allie who might hurt her. We're all left reeling a little from the discovery that the idol is active, but somehow the revelation doesn't seem all that troubling now that we know. The fact is that it offered no new information. It was crafted to show Allie particular scenes, and it's still doing what it was made to do. Nothing more or less. I know Allie's still worried about the fact that the others might have made it off the island. She doesn't relish the idea of watching us all die again. But this time, at least she would know that she wasn't seeing a future she needed to prevent; only a past that she had already repaired.

Sometime after dinner, I find her out on the deck overlooking the beach, reclined on a lounge chair, gazing up at the sky. I open the door and step out onto the deck, where I'm greeted by warm, moist air that smells of saltwater, and the soft whisper of the Pacific Ocean as lazy waves break over the shore.

“Hey. Is this a private party out here?”

She turns to smile at me. “Not at all. Pull up a chair.” I stretch out on a chair beside her, lacing my fingers behind my head.

“You holding up okay? ...I know it had to be scary, reliving that vision.”

She shrugs, sighing. “Yeah...it was. ...But I'm kinda getting used to that kind of scary. ...Honestly, finally feeling confident that this existence isn't going to be snatched away from me...finally feeling like I'm meant to live out the rest of my life with all of you in this world...that's overpowering the scary right now.”

“Well, that's heartening to hear.”

“...I want to tell your parents about the baby. They practically raised me, I think they deserve to know. And they deserve to hear it from me, not find out a few months down the line when they happen to run into me and I'm sporting a little basketball under my shirt.”

I chuckle a little. “Mama's not going to be pleased about the fact that you and Jake aren't legally married.”

She grins. “Even if I could tell her about the handfasting, it wouldn't help. If it were up to Mama, I'd be married on my knees in a full Catholic mass, complete with an Ave Maria.”

“If it were up to Mama, you would have had a full-blown quinceañera when you were fifteen. Face it, if she could have, Mama would have stolen you from your aunt and uncle and brought you up entirely as her own. ...And if you promise that your baby will call her Abuelita, I think she'll forgive you for getting knocked up without a ring on your finger.”

Allie laughs. “Oh, you know my baby was always going to call her Abuelita.” She sighs, leaning back in her chair. “...God, I can't tell you how badly I want peanut butter right now.”

“Peanut butter, huh? Crunchy or smooth?”

“Smooth. ...I want it on crackers. Or in cookie form. Or straight out of the jar. I don't care, I just want peanut butter.”

“You want jelly with that?”

She makes a face. “Good god, no.”

I have to laugh at that. “Your baby's making you weird. Come on, let's see what's in the kitchen.”

 

Grayson

 

Four days later, the Rourke entourage shows up at The Grand, as promised, in the hours before opening. It's the same six; the Rourke siblings, Aleister's wife, their chief of security, and their two bodyguards. And I have Rochelle, Dax, and Poppy.

“Have you...done what you needed to with the idol?”

“We have,” Aleister confirms. “You did well for us, and we think you deserve to know a little more.”

“Well. I'm all ears.”

“The amber Catalyst idols were forged by the Endless. Their purpose was to guide Alodia to a particular place on La Huerta called the Threshold. The significance of the Threshold is a long story that isn't really relevant right now, but that's what they were made for. Touching the idols brought Alodia visions, and the visions helped guide her to the Threshold. Each one was forged from a species of pure amber found only on La Huerta—and another ingrediant, necessary to establish a psychic link between Alodia and the Catalyst represented by the idol.”

“...Which was...?”

“...Said Catalyst's blood.”

“...Oh.” There's really not much more I can say to that. I turn my focus elsewhere. “...So...each idol represents a different Catalyst?”

“Correct. Each Catalyst is represented by a constellation. The one your father had acquired, the Cygnus idol, represents Grace. Mine is Serpens, the Snake. Estela is the Dragon, Draco; and Zahra is Corvus, the Crow. There are twelve in all.”

“Twelve!” Rochelle exclaims. “But...I thought there were Eleven Catalysts.”

“You will have to go through Eleven Catalysts to reach Alodia,” Estela confirms. “...Alodia, who is the Twelfth Catalyst.”

“...And what is Alodia's constellation?”

Estela meets her eyes, holding her gaze. “Andromeda.”

Rochelle and I exchange glances. I'm familiar enough with classic mythology to feel a sense of sadness at that revelation. And perhaps to understand better why her friends are being so protective of her. I can't imagine the constellations were chosen arbitrarily.

“What exactly are you Catalysts of?” Dax asks.

“That's something else that isn't currently relevant,” Estela replies firmly. “We promised you a little more information, and that you would meet two more Catalysts today.”

She gestures to the two bodyguards, who step forward and remove their sunglasses. Aleister gestures to each in turn.

“Meet Ursa, the Bear. And the Eagle, Aquila. A.k.a. Craig Hsiao and Sean Gayle.” He turns to smile at me. “Congratulations, Odysseus. You are halfway to Ithaca.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Grayson

“Oh my god!” Poppy yelps. “Are you the Sean Gayle?!”

“Which Sean Gayle?” Dax asks, frowning.

“Only the Condors' star quarterback! I know you're not into sports, but haven't you at least played the UltraBowl video games?”

“If I don't want to play sports in real life, I'm not sure why I would want to play them on a video game, either,” Dax retorts. “...Did I know you liked football?”

“Probably not. There's a lot you don't know about me yet.” She winks at him. “I'm a woman of mystery.”

Sean Gayle clears his throat. “Okay, yes. I do play for the Condors. But that's not why I'm here. I'm here as Aquila. One of the Twelve Catalysts. And I'm here as Sean. Alodia's friend. It's why all six of us are here. Because you want to use Alodia to bring back Tahira.”

“It isn't that we want to use her,” I protest. “But we need her to--”

“I know. I know. And I sympathize. But we don't know yet if she could get hurt by this. We probably won't know until we've actually brought Alodia into it.” He glances at his companions. “We all believe Dragonness is worth the risk. I know Alodia believes it, too. But given the risk, we just can't bring Alodia into it until all of us are sure we can trust you.”

“It isn't just Alodia at stake, either,” Aleister adds. “As we explained before, the Prism Crystal is one piece of a much larger mystery. You could call us paranoid, and you'd be absolutely right. But we've seen what La Huerta's secrets can do when they fall into the wrong hands. ...And we already lost Alodia once.”

“Understand that we are committed to helping you,” Grace says. “But before you meet Alodia, every one of us is going to meet you. You're going to learn what she means to us. Because in the event that she comes to harm because of this...you need to understand exactly what you're asking us to risk. And we all need to know that you understand.”

“How do we convince you of that?” I ask, impatience and frustration barely concealed in my voice. They go on and on about what they're risking, but they don't have any idea what they'd really be gaining by bringing Tahira home.

Sean seems to sense my resentment. He looks into my eyes, holding my gaze. “...In many ways, La Huerta was a nightmare. We were never safe. We were often suffering. But through it all, we had each other. We had each other and we had Alodia. She was our leader, and every one of us was improved for knowing her. She was our hope.” He draws in a steadying breath, suddenly looking a little apprehensive. “...I had spent most of my life up to that point trying to be a hero. Not for the glory of it, but because I didn't believe I could trust anyone else. I thought it was on me to make sure the people I cared about never got hurt. I wanted to prove to the world that I was a better man than my abusive father. ...But somewhere along the way, that turned into me holding myself and everyone else to impossible standards. I became unforgiving, and I almost lost the love of my life because of it. Alodia taught me how to let go. She gave me the courage to trust.”

“We were all some kind of broken when we came to that island,” Zahra murmurs. “Misfits in one way or another, trying to figure out our lives. I was still stuck thinking that everyone was out for themselves. But you can't help but question that when someone invests in you like she invested in me. In all of us. She didn't deserve any of the crap that island threw at her.”

“I went to La Huerta on a mission of revenge,” Estela says. “I had shut out everything except that goal. ...I didn't actively want to frighten people off, but I had grown used to the idea that people were going to be afraid of me. ...Alodia never was. I stayed human because of her. And in the end, she prevented me from making what would have been the biggest mistake of my life.”

“Me, I was scared of the future,” Craig sighs. “I'd been a football star for awhile in college, but wasn't up to pro level. Soon as that became clear, I started giving up. I had never been good at school or anything like that, and without the game, I just didn't know what there was for me. ...But she didn't know what was coming for her, either. Every time the rest of us were starting to give up, she could give a speech to get us all back on our feet. She never let on how scared she was. ...We all thought Rourke killed her. ...I think she figured out he was coming for her, because I remember the last night we saw her five years ago, she made one last speech about what we all meant to her. Said she wasn't afraid...”

Zahra covers his hand with hers. “She might've been lying. But she made us believe it. ...It was probably the only flat-out lie she ever told us. She didn't usually hold back telling us what we needed to hear. She was always good at figuring that out.”

“...My whole life, my mother pushed me to be the best in everything,” Grace adds. “I arrived on La Huerta a nervous, neurotic, insecure mess. Every uncertainty sent me into a spiral of fear and shame because I wasn't supposed to be uncertain about anything. Alodia never acted surprised when I faced something that I couldn't handle. She never scolded me or acted disapproving. My weaknesses and mistakes never weighed more than my successes with her.”

“No one's mistakes count more than their virtues with her,” Aleister agrees. “If your good intentions are paving the road to hell, she will certainly call you out. If you have no virtues to speak of, she won't hesitate to take you down. But if there is even a chance of saving you, she'll crawl through the hell you created to do it. ...I made a horrible mistake on La Huerta, falling victim to my father's manipulation and betraying everyone. At the time, she spat in my face. But when next we met, she begged me to come back with her. Once I came to my senses, she never rubbed salt in the wound. I was forgiven, and that was all there was to it.”

“She does sound like an amazing person,” I concede. “...But so is Tahira.”

“...We know. We were all watching when she sacrificed herself to save the city. We're not disputing her heroism or her goodness.”

I am quiet for a moment. Thoughtful. “...All right. I accept that you all need to be more certain of everything before you bring someone as important to you as Alodia into this situation. So...what would it be worth if I brought Tahira's allies into this? If I let Talos and Minuet plead their case for Tahira, too?”

The six Catalysts take a moment to huddle up and discuss my offer. Rochelle steps nervously up to me.

“Do you really think they'll help?” she whispers.

Dax smiles a little. “For Tahira? Absolutely.”

The Catalysts break their huddle. “All right, you have a deal. Bring Talos and Minuet to the next meeting, and we'll bring Delphinus, Centaurus, and Pavo. They're the last three Catalysts in Northbridge.”

“...Then...that would bring us up to nine,” Rochelle says, her voice hopeful.

“It would,” Estela agrees. “...But don't get cavalier. The last hurdle will be Canis and Lupus. And they love Alodia more than the rest of us put together.”

 

Jake

 

Under the evening sky, wrapped in the warm, salty breeze wafting off the Pacific, I lean back in a lounge chair, cinching my arms gently around my wife's waist. She's reclined against my chest with a bowl of grapes and apple slices balanced on her lap, my legs wrapped around her bobsled-style. We had dinner with Diego's folks this evening, to tell them about the baby. It went about as well as we could have hoped for, according to Diego and Alodia. His mom fretted and wrung her hands awhile about the fact that I haven't put a ring on Alodia's finger yet, but then Alodia promised the baby would call her Abuelita, and that made everything acceptable.

I nuzzle Alodia's neck, inhaling the flowery scent of her body lotion. I let one hand creep up to cup her breast, but she gently takes my wrist and moves it back to her belly.

“Not now, Jake. I'm pretty tender there right now.”

“Ahh, right. You should tell your boobs it's a little early to be making milk.”

She snorts. “I think my boobs know what they're doing, thank you very much. I do wish they didn't hurt so much. You know I normally love it when you cop a feel.”

“Well, I don't have to grab your boobs.” I tug her T-shirt out of the waistband of her jeans and let my hand rest on her belly, rubbing in gentle, slow circles. “I could give Baby a little love...”

“River.”

“...River?”

She closes her eyes, letting her head fall back onto my shoulder. “...That's the baby's name. River Skye McKenzie.”

“Is that for a boy or a girl?”

“Either one.”

I turn the name over in my mind for a moment. “River Skye McKenzie,” I murmur, tasting the name carefully. “I think I like it. Why River Skye, though?”

“This baby is us. You and me. It's the two of us together, loving each other. I want the baby to have a name that reflects that. I was thinking of moments we shared, moments that stood out to me, and my mind kept coming back to that time beside the river. The one inside the rift where we hid while the rainforest burned outside. ...I had just met the Endless at the Threshold. Except for you and Estela, everyone was missing. I didn't know if anyone was hurt or captured. I knew that Rourke would be coming after everyone. Trying to...tie up loose ends. ...But just for a moment, beside that river, nothing mattered except you and me.”

“...I remember that moment. I was all cut up about Mike. But I'd gotten you back, and for a moment, that was enough. ...And then you promised me we'd get Mike back, and I loved you more than ever.”

“...That's one of my favorite memories of us. That's why I want to name our baby River.”

“And Skye?”

She chuckles, bringing my hand up to press her lips to my palm. “Where we first met.”

I laugh. “I suppose 'Plane' is a tacky middle name. And I think if we have a son, he'd hate us if we gave him the name 'Delilah', even as a middle name.”

“...So...you approve of my choice?”

I tip her face toward mine and capture her mouth in a kiss. “I love it,” I assure her when we break apart, stroking her cheek with my forefinger. “...Are you content with our baby having my surname? Legally, you're still a Chandler.”

She shrugs. “What the hell is Chandler, though? A name my father made up when he assumed human form?”

“Or the name Diego dreamed up for you.”

“Hmm, that is a fair point. ...Still...it doesn't mean as much to me as McKenzie. If we ever do legally marry, I'll become Alodia McKenzie in a heartbeat.” She sighs, nuzzling into me. “...I can't believe it's already September. Diego's class starts on Monday...”

“Summer is just about over,” I agree. The words are out of my mouth before I consider them, and I hear my voice falter just a little. ...Her last message to the Catalysts still exists. What she thought would be her last message. ...Our summer is over, but another will come soon...

If she is aware of my sudden change in mood, she doesn't let on. “Luckily, this is southern California, so it's going to feel like summer until December. And even then, it won't really get cold.”

“Yeah. It's the same deal in Louisiana.”

“My first winter at Hartfeld was quite an experience. Autumn was incredible and beautiful with the leaves changing, but then it just kept getting colder. And then came the snow. I mean, I had seen snow before, but never so much of it in one place. Not to mention that it was still cold even when it wasn't snowing, and there wasn't really any way to escape it. There wasn't just one or two cold days and then it got back up to something more tolerable. Diego and I spent most of winter term freshman year under a blanket in his dorm room watching The Crown and the Flame and whining about the weather.”

“You're lucky you had someone to whine with,” I reply, planting a kiss on her neck. “The Academy in Annapolis was the first taste I had of a real northern winter. The whole reason Mike calls me Grandpa is because he said I sounded like an old man grumbling about how cold I was all the time.”

“Aww, poor Top Gun,” she cooes. “You're lucky you fell in love with a California girl.”

I close my eyes and let my cheek rest on top of her head, sighing contentedly. “I'm lucky my California girl fell in love with me.

“You made it easy.”

I snort. “Liar.”

“No, I mean it. You can pretend you were all misanthropic and self-interested, but you were always kind.”

To you, maybe. I don't say that aloud, but it's true. Maybe I was never actively malicious or cruel, but I could be a callous jerk to the rest of them at the start. Especially Sean. But Alodia...I couldn't be callous with her. Who knows if it was just some unconscious understanding of her importance or what, but from the start, I had to fight for her. Fight for that idealistic fire burning in her eyes. That confidence and determination. I had to nurture her, to nurse the flame so she could shine brighter and stronger. I had to protect her. Hell, maybe I already loved her. From the moment she called me Top Gun...

“Well, you know how it is, Princess. You bring out the best in me. I ain't never gonna believe I'm half of what you deserve, but that you still choose me only makes me cherish you more.”

“...I chose you over more than two-thousand lifetimes, Jacob Lucas McKenzie. I will choose you over two-thousand more. No land, no sea...”

I finish her sentence, murmuring it like a prayer. “...No one will keep us apart.”

 

Everett Rourke

 

Oh, this is interesting. Very interesting. Quite an intriguing development. So much so that I can hardly believe it's real.

“I must consider this,” I murmur into my disguised phone.

“There is...something more, sir,” Lila ventures timidly. “Alodia is pregnant.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Impressive. I would not have imagined it possible for such a hybrid as herself to conceive with a human. I suppose Jacob McKenzie is the father.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I must consider this as well. The implications...what it could mean...”

“What implications...?

“I am not sure just yet. How far gone is she? It cannot be more than two months.”

“It's not. I believe she's only about nine or ten weeks gone.”

“We have time enough then to consider how this will affect the situation. Perhaps this should go without saying, but do not attempt to take any steps against the child. It could be useful to us, and I do not want it destroyed.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good girl. Now, I must make another call. Continue as you were. Report any important developments, but otherwise, you are to wait for my instructions. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

I disconnect the call and immediately place another. I do not expect she will be pleased to hear from me. Perhaps she will even attempt to ignore me. But I cannot allow that. And it is not as if she can block me. This device was designed with a workaround to that little problem. Finally, I hear her voice, an angry growl in my ear.

“Who are you?” she snarls. “And why do you keep calling me? This had better be important, or I will have you placed under arrest for harrassment so fast your head will spin!”

“Unnecessary, my dear Ms. Hall. I am already safely locked away from society.” I pause, feeling a smirk on my lips. “...It is Ms. that you go by these days, isn't it? For all that you kept Mason Hall's surname, you don't mean to imply that you are still married, do you.”

There is a pause on the other end of the line. “...Everett Rourke Senior, I presume,” she finally says, her voice tight with irritation. “Your...singular charm is unmistakeable.”

“Please, call me Everett. Really, I ought to be calling you Blair, as well.”

“Don't you dare, Rourke.”

“Come now, Blair. Our children are married. We have a grandchild in common. We are practically family. Are you saying that doesn't put us on a first-name basis?”

“It absolutely does not,” she says firmly. “I doubt either of us are very welcome in our grandson's life, anyway. Now get to the point. What does the disgraced former C.E.O of Rourke International want with the lead investor in his children's company?”

“Not sympathy. Just information. On a woman who was first employed by Mansingh Transglobal about thirty or so years ago. I believe she worked for the company until her death.”

“And when did she die?”

“In 1996. Her name was Cassandra Chandler.”

 

Chapter Text

Alodia

 

The loud clang of metal on metal reverberates through Theoretical Prismatics as Aleister's fencing blade connects with the piece of derelict technology I've pressed myself against, missing my head by half an inch. The Andromeda armor gleams in the diffused glow of dingy florescent lights as I duck and roll away from my maddened friend. I can see Seraxa's obsedian blade in the corner. If I can just reach it, I can defend myself. Disarm him. Incapacitate him enough that I can get away. Find the others. Get away. Get back to Elyys'tel.

Aleister lunges at me again with lightning speed, but I'm faster, using Estela's defensive training to block and evade, watching him carefully for any sign of weakness. His eyes are wild with fury, but his movements are graceful and precise.

“You! You killed her! You killed Grace!”

“I didn't kill anyone!” I protest, twirling away from his blade again.

“She is dead because of you!”

“No, she isn't! Aleister, she's alive! She's back at Elyys'tel! We can take you to her if you just help us!”

“Liar! You're a lying witch! That's what he said! That's what they all say!”

“What who all say?!”

He slows down for just a moment, catching his breath. “The Hostiles...my father...everyone! You control the Island's Heart! You control the Endless! You control the crystals and the island...”

“I do not!” I protest. “The Vaanti have never said any such thing! It's all Rourke! It's all your father! He's been filling your head with lies for the past year! ...Oh, God...Aleister, what has he been doing to you...?”

He stops. His whole body trembles violently. “...Doing...to...me...” He shakes his head hard, droplets of sweat flying from the ends of his hair. “N-nothing! He's done nothing to me! He is being a father to me! Protecting me from the likes of you!”

He strikes again, so quickly that I don't see it coming, and sweeps my leg out from under me with his foot. I fall hard onto my back, the back of my head hitting the floor so hard that stars explode in front of my eyes. I lay stunned, just long enough that for him to get a foot on my chest and the point of his sword at my throat. He's going to kill me. I have no doubt that he means to do it. But he hesitates just a moment too long. A powerful pair of arms clamps around him from behind, pinning his arms to his sides. He struggles, howling in fury as Raj drags him off me, and I scramble to my feet.

“Al, calm down!” Raj murmurs through gritted teeth. “Come on, man! It's okay! We're your friends!”

She's not my friend!” Aleister screams, lunging for me. “She's the cause of all of this! I'll kill her! I'll kill her and free us all!”

“Man, don't make me hurt you!” Raj pleads. “I don't want to hurt you!”

I rush forward to grab Aleister's face in my hands, forcing him to look into my eyes. “Aleister, stop!” And then he stills, as if hypnotized by my gaze. “It's me, Aleister. It's Alodia. I'm your friend. I don't know what Rourke has been doing to you, but he can't be trusted. You know he can't be trusted.”

He is quiet for a long time, trembling in Raj's grip. His lips quiver, his eyes filling with tears. “...Grace...?”

“She's alive. She was hurt, but she survived. She's okay. ...We'll take you to her. Just tell us where Rourke has the others and help us get them out.”

A strangled gasp of pain from Raj breaks my concentration. He has gone rigid, his eyes wide with shock. Horror floods through me as blood appears between his lips, trickling out the sides of his mouth. Over his shoulder, gripping the shaft of a spear, I can just make out Everett Rourke.

“Please release my son, Mr. Bandharkar. I can't allow Alodia to corrupt him any further.”

* * *

The sun is rising over the Pacific as I sit in the kitchen in my bathrobe with a glass of milk in front of me, gazing out the window. I told Jake I was going to satisfy a craving about an hour ago. I hope he fell back asleep. I assume he did. He probably would have come to find me thirty minutes ago if he were still awake.

I start slightly at the sound of footsteps in the kitchen, but my pulse slows when I realize it's just Diego, smartly dressed for his first day of class in khakis and a button-down top. He's freshly showered and shaved, his hair neatly combed and parted just slightly to one side. I'm still slightly thrown by the fact that he wears glasses now, even after about three months to get used to them. He frowns slightly when he sees me.

“What are you doing up so early?”

I lift my milk glass by way of explanation. “Craving.” I smile slightly. “I like the look, by the way. Except for the glasses, it's pretty classic Diego.”

He chuckles as he takes a cartoon of coffee and a box of filters from the cabinet. “Classic Diego, huh?”

“I'd kinda gotten used to the teen-heartthrob look you had on the island. Did you ever think of keeping it?”

He scoops out a spoonful of ground coffee and dumps the dark powder into a paper filter. “...Honestly...I shaved the second I got my hands on a razor. And as soon as I had my hands on some money, I found a barber.”

“...So quickly?”

“It reminded me of you,” he says simply. “...That hurt. A lot.”

I bite my lip against the wave of guilty tears the threatens me. Seeing my expression, Diego comes over to draw me into his arms. I screw my eyes shut, leaning into his embrace.

“...I know...I know it shouldn't bother me...” I whisper.

“Oh, Allie. I missed you. That's all I meant. It hurt because I didn't think you were coming back, and that was upsetting.”

“I know. I just hate that I put you through that. ...Also, I've got hormones. That's probably not helping.”

“Probably not. But it wasn't anything you 'put us through', Allie. It was the result of the fact that we love you and you were gone.”

“The doctor said that a lot of pregnant women have really vivid dreams at this stage. I just wondered how I'd be able to tell...”

“...Is that what you're really doing up at this hour?”

I sigh. I don't have the energy to lie. “Yeah.”

He moves to pour himself a cup of coffee, and brings it over to the table, pulling up a chair. “...You wanna tell me?”

“No...not the details. Not now. ...I watched someone die. Again. That's what it always is.”

He reaches across the table and takes my hand. “You're not alone, you know.”

“I know.”

“...What I mean is, you're not the only one of us who's dealt with nightmares. We all had them after the island.”

That actually makes me look up. “...Really?”

“Yeah. And a lot of us had them before the island, too. ...Two of your Catalysts fought wars, Allie. And three were abused and neglected as children. ...I was a gay teenager in a conservative Catholic family. The fact that you were phase-shifting through that entire timeline probably saved my life because I guess a part of me could sense that I really wasn't alone, that there really was a friend there who would love me and tell me that there wasn't anything wrong with me.” My tears are flowing in earnest now, my throat swollen with sobs that tear out of my chest. Diego grips my hand, but he keeps talking. “...After we lost you to the island, we all had nightmares about our experiences there. We all talked about them. About seeing Arachnid coming after us, the guests in the stasis pods, Mount Atropo erupting, Cetus attacking...we all dreamed about the moment you gave yourself up pretty regularly. Nightmares are common with grief and trauma. ...But...it got easier to bear with time. The eleven of us talked all the time, and we worked through it together.”

“So...that's your advice to me?” I ask in a whimper. “Just talk about it?”

“Well, I mean, don't force yourself. But basically, yes. ...Don't try to force yourself to feel better, either. It's gonna take time. But it can get better, Allie. It got better for us. It can get better for you, too. You've only been back for a few months. It might be years before you start to really feel like you've got your feet under you.” He takes a sip of coffee, giving my hand another squeeze. “...And if you want to talk now, I've got time to listen.”

I look up at him. For a long moment, I just look at him, studying his face. Then I draw in a shuddering breath.

“...I never really know everything about the situation I'm dreaming about. It's like suddenly waking up on a the set of a movie in the middle of a scene being filmed, and I know vaguely what I'm supposed to be doing, but I never know why or exactly who's alive. ...And I don't know who is about to die in front of me. ...It was Raj this time...killed by Rourke...”

 

Raj

 

I had never guessed that there was a superhero base inside the abandoned Northbridge clocktower, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. It's an impressive setup, comfortable, homey, and very high-tech. I cast my eye over the place, whistling with approval.

“Sweet digs. I gotta get into the superhero business.”

“It isn't always what I would would call lucrative,” Minuet says ruefully from where she stands at the window with her arms folded. Talos, his bronze body stretched out on the couch, grins at us.

“But it is always rewarding.”

Minuet rolls her eyes. “You know, when Tahira puts on the goody two-shoes act, I actually believe it.”

“At least I was never a thief,” Talos retorts. “When exactly are you planning on giving Dax his suit back?”

“Okay, enough!” Dax chides them. “That's not why we're here, is it. We're here for Tahira.”

“Right.” Minuet looks hard at us. “These people have the means to bring her back, but they're making us jump through hoops for it.”

“The means,” Michelle says coldly, narrowing her eyes, “is not an 'it'. Her name is Alodia. And she happens to mean the world to us, understand? I may not have liked her at first, but that was only because she didn't flatter me the way I was used to people doing. Of course, most of the people who flattered me ended up betraying me. If I pushed her, she pushed back. But she never let me fall. No matter what we said to each other in those early days, if I was in trouble, she would help me out of it. She saw something in me worth protecting and cherishing, even if I actively pushed her away.”

“She's good at seeing people for who they are,” I add. “Most people saw me as the crazy party stoner. Someone whose antics they could laugh at, but not someone to actually take seriously. Not even my professors gave me credit for being smart, even when I was acing every exam. Alodia always respected me. She never tried to pin a label on me. With her, I can be the wild stoner and the cum laude college graduate. I can be the master chef and the business man. I can be anything I feel like being because she'll always accept that I'm still me.”

“...She saved my life,” Quinn says softly. The eyes of every Catalyst turn on her sharply. We all knew we were going to tell the superheroes what Alodia means to us individually. But I don't think we were expecting Quinn to reveal anything about the Island's Heart.

“Quinn...” Michelle says softly. “You don't have to tell that story...”

“I know. But I think they should know it. ...I came to La Huerta believing I only had six months to live. Rotterdam's Syndrome. If you've heard of the Kelly Foundation, you already know who I am and what my story is. The official story is that an experimental treatment my father arranged for me cured me. But that wasn't it. It was Alodia. ...Using power she wasn't fully aware was hers yet. That is...she used one of the island's crystals. A particularly powerful one which was named the Island's Heart. I...will leave it to Alodia herself to tell you exactly what the Island's Heart was. I expect she will tell you when you meet her. But the journey to acquire it wasn't easy. And the effects the Island's Heart had on me were...scary sometimes. The same way I expect your powers can be to you when they manifest in ways you don't expect. But I was worth the journey to her, and she never abandoned me when the Island's Heart caused me to behave in ways that terrified her and the others. To her, I was always more than my illness. More than the strange effects of the Island's Heart. I had always tried not to let my illness define me, but it always seemed to do just that. How can I explain what it was like to have someone who could look past that, even knowing about it, and just see me...?

A long silence descends over the room. Abruptly, Talos drops his bronze disguise, revealing Kenji Katsaros, which we all knew was coming, but we try to act appropriately surprised. Minuet removes her mask. I don't recognize the woman behind it, but she introduces herself as Eva.

“We all understand where you're coming from,” Kenji assures us. “Grayson has told us that you need to be sure of us before you let us meet Alodia, and we completely understand. It's why we're here. But we think we deserve a chance to plead our case for Tahira, too.”

“Kenji has already revealed that I used to be a thief,” Eva begins. “I had my reasons for stealing. My father was an employee at Mayhew Dynamics. He ended up getting lung cancer thanks to Mayhew sacrificing employee safety to pad his bottom line. I stole to pay the bills, and because I was furious at the world that had allowed it to happen. Tahira taught me how to be a hero. Not by lecturing or browbeating, but by helping me to take down Mayhew—without letting me cross a line that couldn't be uncrossed.”

“She's not just a hero as Dragonness, either,” Kenji adds. “I mean, as heroes go in that sense, you're not likely to find one who's as selfless and upstanding, but beyond that, she's compassionate and kind, and she'll never let down a friend in need.”

“Poppy and I both knew her for years before she was Dragonness,” Grayson says. “We all went to school together. Most people on campus knew me best as the son of Silas Prescott, someone to flatter and admire, but no one really knew the real me, and no one tried. ...Except for her.”

“She's my best friend,” Poppy declares. “Everyone knows Dragonness now, but not many people really know Tahira. They don't know the girl who was there to hold my head while I puked when I got drunk for the first time in college. They don't know the girl who doesn't hesitate to tell me when I'm being petty or unreasonable or downright stupid the way only your best friend can.”

“They certainly don't know the girl who liked to pretend the swing at the playground was a flying horse,” Rochelle adds softly. “Or who put her arms around me and held me while I cried at her grandmother's funeral, even though she was only eight years old at the time. Or who begged me to drive her to school every day of sixth grade because she was being bullied by the wealthy, popular girls. I didn't know that was why right away, but one morning she broke down at breakfast and confessed everything. And while she sobbed in my arms, we looked out the window and saw the school bus pass by. I called her in sick that morning, and I called into work, and we spent the day downtown. We went to a movie, got our nails done, and then went out to a nice dinner, and I let her get two desserts...”

“We want her back,” Dax says softly. “We want her home. We'll keep doing this as long as we have to. As many times as we have to. Until you trust us enough to let us meet Alodia. So. How about telling us the next step?”

 

Diego

 

Friday afternoon, I check my phone after class, and I'm startled to find a text from Mike Darwin of all people, asking me to call him. I find a quiet spot and thumb the call through. He picks up on the second ring.

“Hey. Thanks for calling.”

“Is everything okay? You sound...worried.”

“Not worried exactly. A little nervous though. Got a call from Aleister asking if I'd be able to fly to Northbridge and bring the Prescott crew out to California to make their case to you and Jake.”

I feel my heart start to beat faster. “...I see...”

“Clearly, they impressed the others enough to get to this point. But...”

“This means they're getting closer to Allie,” I finish softly. “And whatever happens next...”

“I already got permission from Jake and Alodia. I want to make sure you're okay with meeting them, too. Before I agree to fly them out here.”

“I mean...I trust the others. As long as we're agreed that Jake and I meet them before they get to Allie.”

“Of course. ...I don't think Alodia's exactly on board with that, but Jake kinda put his foot down.”

“I'm not surprised on either of those counts. It was one thing when it was everyone in Northbridge deciding whether to tell a bunch of other people in Northbridge that she was in California. But now that they're coming to California, I can imagine she feels a little weird about waiting to meet them in a back room while Jake and I interrogate them.”

“But Jake doesn't let go easy. He's got the love of his life back and she's pregnant with his kid. The fact that he actually respects her enough to care about what she wants is probably the only reason he doesn't have her locked up in a tower right now. He's just so scared of losing her...”

I feel a moment of overwhelming kinship with Mike, with this man who has been a best friend and brother to Jake, the husband of my own sister-in-spirit. What Mike says next almost feels predictable.

“...I'm thinking I should stick close to Jake until this is over.”

“There are nine bedrooms at the beach house,” I point out. “Fully furnished. We won't charge you rent, either.”

“My one concern is that last time Jake and I lived under the same roof, things were pretty tense between us.”

“Well, you were both dealing with your own trauma at the time.”

“That trauma hasn't exactly gone away. ...But right now, I'm in a stronger place than he is. He needs me.”

“He absolutely does,” I agree. “Come stay with us awhile, Mike. I need you in my corner, too.”

“You do?”

“Mike, you and I are the best friends to a pair of reckless, bull-headed, angry pieces of work with hearts that are almost too big and who love each other to the depths of their shared reckless, bull-headed, angry, loving soul. We're their brothers. So what do you think that means?”

“It means they need us,” I can hear the wry smile in his voice.

“Exactly. They're fire, those two. They need us to be earth and water to keep them from burning out of control.”

“They need us to keep 'em out of trouble. Or to bail 'em out if we can't. ...Which I guess is the same thing you said, but less poetic.”

“Yeah, I'm water in that metaphor.”

“Okay, Soto. I'll pitch the idea to the Firebirds, and we'll see what they say.”

 

Rochelle

 

The private Rourke International jet lurches as its wheels make contact with the tarmac at the small airport near Laguna Beach, California. My stomach lurches with it, though I don't think it's because of the motion. This is it. The final hurdle. The last two Catalysts before we finally meet Alodia. My daughter's biological cousin. The one who can bring her home.

The pilot is not a Catalyst, but he is apparently a friend of theirs. His name is Michael Darwin, and he is a handsome man in his late twenties or early thirties, with one bionic eye. I wonder if there is significance in the fact that I have met two people associated with the Catalysts who happen to have bionic parts. He didn't say much as he guided me, Grayson, Dax, Poppy, Eva, and Kenji onto the plane, and he doesn't say much now. It's not until we're all crammed into the limousine that he actually speaks to us at length.

“We managed to find a place in Riverside that's neutral territory, and also private enough to hold a conversation as delicate as this. There, you'll be introduced to Diego Soto and Jake McKenzie. Canis and Lupus. They also happen to be Alodia's best friend and her husband respectively.”

“I expect they'll have more stories about what she means to them and how wonderful she is.” My words come out with more bitterness than I intended, and I blush a little at my own callousness. But Mike actually looks a little sympathetic.

“I expect you're getting tired of those stories by now.”

I sigh. “It isn't that, exactly. I don't doubt that Alodia is everything everyone's claimed she is. ...But do they want me just to give up on my own daughter to avoid risking Alodia?”

“That isn't what they want at all. Trust me, if anyone would want to help you get your daughter back, it would be the Catalysts. ...They've been through what you have. They spent five years thinking Alodia was gone forever. It was only by chance that they got her back. If they had known sooner that she was alive, they would have fought just as hard as you're fighting. But consider this: when you get your daughter back, are you gonna forbid her from going back to her life as Dragonness?”

That actually gives me pause. I hadn't honestly considered past the moment when I will hold her in my arms again. Now that I can't help but think about it, the thought of her fighting again makes my pulse race.

“I...suppose I can't forbid her. She is an adult now...”

“But you don't much like the thought of it, either. You lost her once. Any chance of that happening again isn't an easy thought to face.”

“No,” I admit.

“But if she told you it was what she had to do, that it was her duty or her destiny or her calling or whatever...you wouldn't stand in her way, would you.”

“...No. I wouldn't.”

“But you would still do everything possible to protect her.”

“Of course.”

“...That's the frame of mind the Catalysts are in right now. They lost Alodia once, and they only just got her back. She's committed to helping you, and so are they. But even though they know they have to let her do this, they can't help but try to protect her along the way.”

I nod silently. I suppose a part of me already realized all this, but Mike is laying it out in a way I can't really deny. The Catalysts have been where we are. They can empathize. I should try to empathize with them, too.

“How do you know the Catalysts?” Grayson asks.

“Jake McKenzie and I served in the Navy together. Fighter pilots.” He pauses for a long moment. “...We were in Kharzistan. Discovered our CO was selling arms to the dictators we were fighting, and tried to turn him in. But we got ratted out and ambushed during a routine recon flight. Jake was able to eject. I wasn't. He thought I was dead, which isn't a surprise, but I managed to survive. But...”

He trails off again and doesn't speak for awhile. For a long time, the rest of us exchange glances, wondering whether to prompt him to continue. It ends up being moot when he continues on his own.

“...I got this eye thanks to our CO. And these.” He lifts up his pant legs just enough to let us see that the legs underneath are bionic. “Jake spent three years on the run. ...I ended up stuck in some mind-control tech suit doing the CO's bidding. We met up again on La Huerta. ...The Catalysts saved me. And after the island, we managed to clear our names and get our DD's erased.”

“...I'm sorry you went through that.”

“I'm sorry you watched your daughter give herself up.”

“My daughter is alive.”

He smiles ruefully. “So am I.”

* * *

Our meeting place is a small multipurpose room inside a local rec center. It's cool and quiet inside, a welcome change from the heat and brightness outside. Mike leads up the stairs to the appointed room, where two young men are waiting. One is slim and boyishly handsome with olive skin, dark hair trimmed close to his neck, and dark-rimmed glasses. The other wears a set of military dogtags around his neck, though he looks a bit more rugged than I would have expected for a soldier. But there is something in his manner that is undeniably military. Especially when he steps toward me with his shoulders squared and pins me with a sky-blue gaze.

“Are you Rochelle Rogers?”

“I am.”

He puts out his hand. I take it and he shakes firmly, his eyes never leaving mine. “Your daughter is a true hero, ma'am. I was watching the coverage that day. What she did took real courage that deserves to be recognized, honored, and respected. I fully intend to be there when we bring her home so that I can shake her hand, too.”

For a moment, I'm so startled, I can't do anything except stare. This one must be Jake McKenzie. Lupus. Alodia's husband. I was prepared for him to resist more than any of them, to be wary and hostile out of fear for his wife. I was not prepared for him of all of them to open by praising my daughter. And I certainly didn't expect him to speak of her return as a certainty, an event to be eagerly anticipated.

“...I...expect in the military you saw many such heroes...” I murmur.

“Yes. And out of it. I can promise you every one of them is permanently stamped on my heart.”

I feel grateful tears gathering in my eyes, but I still don't dare to hope it's going to be this easy. “Pardon me if I sound harsh, but this wasn't exactly what I was expecting from you.”

“Yeah? What were you expecting?”

“...That you would tell me what a wonderful person Alodia is and how you're putting her at risk and I need to know that.”

“Well, that much is coming, I admit. ...But we're your last hurdle. It ain't gonna pass exactly like before. ...Should we all introduce ourselves?”

We murmur introductions. Kenji and Eva confirm their superhero identities. Diego and Jake invite us to sit on the plastic chairs set up in a circle in the center of the multipurpose room. I feel like I'm in a support group meeting. Diego is the first to speak.

“...I know Alodia better than any of the other Catalysts, really. I'm the one who knew her before the island. She's been my best friend since we were both in diapers. She's practically my sister. She was my family when no one else would be. When I think of the woman I'm protecting, I don't just think of the Twelfth Catalyst. I think of the girl I came out to when we were fifteen and drunk on her uncle's booze, who sang 'If You Were Gay,' at the top of her lungs. ...I think of her quirks, the little details I've always known. She always licks the salt off tortilla chips before eating them. As a child, she was terrified of the martian muppets on Sesame Street. She hates carrots, and she loves turkey sandwiches. She is an incredible dancer, but she's an absolutely tone-deaf singer. No matter where she is in the world, if she stops and stays still for awhile, she starts to imagine every generation that has walked that ground before her...”

“For my part, I think of the woman I fell in love with,” Jake says. Almost absently, he reaches over to grip Mike's shoulder. “...I saw her with her best friend, and I was reminded of the friend I thought I had lost years ago. I saw her devotion to him, and it drew me to her as much as anything else. Looking back, I realize that what really drew me to her is that she was like me. The way I was before I lost everything. Fiery and idealistic. A fighter. I watched her fight on that island, and it helped me fight again.”

“So far, this is all part of the familiar pattern,” Kenji says, not bothering to disguise his impatience. “Why don't you just tell us what quest you want to send us on so we can meet Alodia and get Tahira back?”

Diego and Jake exchange glances. “There's no quest this time,” Diego says. “If you've made it this far, there's no real need to prove yourselves further. But you're missing a lot of the puzzle pieces, and we're here to provide certain details.”

Jake leans forward, lacing his fingers together and propping his elbows on his knees. “...You know that Alodia is Tahira's biological cousin. So you've likely guessed that means she isn't entirely...earth human, shall we say.”

“Yes.”

“Her father was an alien we call Vaanu. Vaanu assumed a human form and married a human woman named Cassandra. They had a child, a daughter they named Alodia. But when Alodia was seven months old, a plane crash over the Atlantic killed both her parents. She was placed in the custody of her mother's sister and brother-in-law and Diego's mother was hired as her nanny. She and Diego attended Hartfeld University together and before their senior year, they won a vacation to La Huerta. I assume you know the basics from there. We were terrorized by Everett Rourke. He became obsessed with Alodia, and she disappeared. We all assumed she was dead, but then two months ago, by chance, we found her in a stasis tube.”

“Well, that's the story the papers ran,” Dax agrees. Jake pins him with a hard gaze.

“It's not the truth.”

“How much...not the truth is it?”

“You've all been living with the reality of the Prism Gate for awhile,” Diego says. “So you're aware of alternate dimensions. How much experience do you have with alternate timelines?”

“You mean like time travel?”

“Exactly.”

Our glances involuntarily slide to Eva, who apparently notices. “Don't look at me. Putting people into slow-motion fields isn't time travel.”

“No. But it is interesting that you gained those powers from the Crystal.”

“Interesting how?”

Diego pauses. “...Let's come back to that. Why don't we start at the beginning. Vaanu is from the same planet as Tahira and her parents. Billions of years ago, the star that kept that planet fit for life expanded, and the planet burned. Vaanu was hurtled across countless lightyears and landed on earth. The impact shattered his body, drew La Huerta up from the earth's crust, and broke apart time and space, creating a time bubble that surrounded the island. Vaanu's spirit lived, but the core of him, a crystal that came to be called the Island's Heart, was split in two and he was trapped. So for billions of years, the Island's Heart nurtured the island, creating an ecosystem that was unlike anything else on earth.”

“Five years ago,” Jake continues, “ten students from Hartfeld University entered the time bubble on a plane flown by a former Navy pilot. The students and the pilot were all misfits with pasts and troubles that kept them from moving forward. The moment they entered the time bubble, their needs and longings met with Vaanu's energy and loneliness. From that energy, Alodia came into being. A human willed into being to be exactly what eleven people and one alien needed her to be. ...Created to give us hope.”

I feel something strangely cold and heavy creep into my belly. I look at Diego. “...I...thought you said you grew up with her...”

“I did. In this timeline. The repaired timeline. But there is another timeline that existed once. One where Alodia didn't exist until the eleven of us willed her into being. We didn't realize it at first. Neither did she. Because we could all vaguely remember the repaired timeline. This timeline, where I grew up with her.”

“...I'm confused.”

“I know. Just bear with us. In the...unrepaired timeline, we entered the time bubble and Alodia was willed into being. Just a few minutes later, our plane was caught in a freak storm. What we would not find out until much later was that the cause of the storm was actually Mount Atropo erupting. The eruption was massive. Enough to burn the entire world outside the time bubble.”

“...Wouldn't we have noticed if the entire world burned five years ago?” Poppy asks, her voice small.

“Ah, but you see, it didn't,” Jake says, smiling ruefully. “...The world didn't burn because Alodia stopped it from happening.”

“...How?”

“Together, the twelve of us brought the two halves of the Island's Heart together. Rourke was going to use it to power a device that would have rewritten history and basically made him emperor of the world. He had mostly drained it of its power, but it was missing a piece. And without that missing piece, he couldn't complete the project. ...Alodia was the missing piece, and she was left with three choices.” He holds up three fingers in turn as he lays out the three options. “One, give Rourke what he wanted. In exchange, we would all be alive, and she would be given a past and a family of her own. But we would forget each other and everything we had been through together. Two, return power to the Island's Heart, and stop the process. We would be safe, and the Island would be preserved. But the rest of the world would have burned. Three...return her own energy to the Island's Heart and give Vaanu the power to leave earth. The timelines would be repaired, the world would be saved. But she would be gone forever. ...Guess which one she chose.”

I don't have to guess. I know. Alodia is my daughter's cousin. I am sure by now that they have the same strength of spirit, the same sense of duty and devotion.

“...She gave herself back,” I murmur, my heart heavy. “But...then how is she here?”

“That's...kind of where you guys come in,” Diego says. “Keep in mind that even we don't understand the exact mechanics involved in this whole thing. But here's what we do know: by the time she rejoined Vaanu, Alodia had become too much her own entity to completely merge with him. But since he wasn't trapped anymore, Vaanu was able to assume human form, insert himself into the repaired timeline, and sire her on her human mother. She was born inside the time bubble, possibly conceived there. And when she was born, a small piece of her life energy was left inside one of the island's crystal fragments. There used to be millions of those crystal shards scattered across the island. Most of them disappeared when Vaanu departed. ...Except for the one your mother found, Grayson. ...The one that contained Alodia's life energy.”

“You mean...the Prism Crystal is...”

Jake nods. “The Prism Crystal, liquid prism...all of it is Alodia's own life energy.”

“After the prism gate exploded, I began to find physical evidence of Alodia's existence. Of our childhood together. Then, when we gathered on the island for our annual reunion...there she was. Now, here's how we think it all works:

“Vaanu gave Alodia a life in the repaired timeline. But she still had to go to the island in order to repair the timeline and set him free in the first place. So, for twenty-odd years, there were two parallel timelines.” Diego demonstrates, holding his arms out parallel in front of him. “One where she existed, and one where she didn't. And for twenty-odd years, Alodia phase-shifted in and out of existence, which is why I was able to imagine her so vividly. Why we all had such a clear impression of her when we willed her into being. The Prism Crystal, that was what allowed the timelines to finally merge. It preserved Alodia's consciousness on earth, while giving her a connection back to Vaanu and his homeworld. That's why Tahira was able to be saved. She's the daughter of Vaanu's brother, Alodia's genetic relative. Her life energy responded to that connection. And it responded again twenty-five years later when Tahira came in direct contact with the crystal. And when the eleven of us gathered together on La Huerta...when the energy of our love for her gathered at the place where she was born, it was the final boost she needed to be able to regain her human form and finally merge the two timelines, giving her a real human existence.”

I nod slowly, feeling understanding seep into my brain, sorting through the confusion. Dax also nods.

“I think I understand,” he says. “We've been told time and time again that will is a powerful thing for their race, especially when it meets with the will of humans. Alodia's will was basically contained inside the Prism Crystal. Maybe not fully conscious, but enough to recognize her own biological relatives, as well as her spiritual family.”

“So...where do the powers come from?” Kenji asks. “And where do Eva and I fit into that? Are we aliens, too?”

“No. You're not. The Endless told us that. As far as we understand it, Tahira's powers are her birthright. And Alodia may also have powers that haven't been unlocked yet. As to where you and Eva fit in, that's better explained by Alodia herself.”

“When do we meet her?”

“Whenever you're ready,” Jake says. He draws in a shuddering breath, lifting his gaze to meet mine. “...I'm scared shitless that I'm going to lose my wife again. ...But your daughter brought her back to me when I thought she was gone forever. There's no way in hell I'm just gonna leave her lost.”

Fresh tears burn in my eyes. “...Thank you.”

* * *

We return to the car we arrived in, and we're driven on. This time, Jake and Diego join us, as well as Mike. Through the tinted window, I can see that the ocean is getting closer. Finally, the car takes a turn into a waterfront neighborhood, and then up the drive of a magnificent beach house. We're let out, and the three men lead us up the walkway and into the house.

“Hey, Princess?” Jake calls. “We're home. We brought company.”

“Come on in,” a voice answers from somewhere down the hall. “We're in the living room.”

We're led down the hall to a majestically decorated living room that opens out onto a sprawling deck overlooking the ocean. Two people rise to greet us. I stop short in the doorway.

One of the two people in question is a man with vibrant blue skin and long aqua hair braided into a queue. The other is a young woman who could only be Alodia. The blue-skinned man is startling enough, but it's Alodia who draws my gaze and holds my attention.

I am not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps someone who looked a little more like my Tahira, dark-haired and olive-skinned, tall and supple, built strong. Alodia is short and lithe, muscular but slim and sinewy, pale and golden-haired with cerulean blue eyes. There is something else I notice about her, too. A particular way her belly is pushing out against under her tank top, against the waistband of her shorts. She folds her hands tellingly over the bulge, and my mouth suddenly feels dry.

She's pregnant. It's subtle, and she can't be more than twelve weeks gone. But no one can recognize the most subtle of signs quite like a woman who has struggled to have a child of her own.

Alodia nods to us. “Come in, everyone. Make yourselves comfortable, because we may be here awhile. ...It's about time you knew everything.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Alodia

They know almost everything. I know what Jake and Diego meant to tell them. They know now what the Prism Crystal is. What I am. But some secrets had to be kept until they met me. Because some secrets are only mine to tell. Our guests sit down. After a moment of exchanging glances, they introduce themselves.

“We can guess who you are,” Grayson Prescott says with a nervous laugh. “We have heard a lot about you. But we don't know who the...um...blue gentleman is...?”

I bite my cheek to keep from laughing. “The 'blue gentleman' is Varyyn. Diego's husband. He also happens to be a Vaanti.”

Varyyn passes me an amused glance, then looks back at Grayson. “It's a pleasure to meet you, Grayson. To answer your next question, no this is not a costume. The Vaanti are the inhabitants of the La Huerta. Our people were human once, but became what we are through exposure to the sap from the great trees that were nurtured by the Island's Heart. Kenji and Eva, that is actually the origin of your powers.”

“...What is?”

“Your ancestors were somehow exposed to the Island's Heart. To the sap of one of the Great Trees, to the energy of the time bubble...perhaps at one point, they even breathed in the ash from an eruption of Mount Atropo. However it happened, their blood was altered, just as my ancestors' blood was altered. The difference is that while my ancestors remained on the island and continued to be exposed, yours left the time bubble and returned to the world outside of it. That is true of you and every other superhuman in Northbridge, save Tahira.”

“...Because Tahira is fully alien,” Dax finishes. “And Alodia's biological relative. That's why the crystal reacted to her first. And why her energy readings were so much stronger.”

“But...then why wasn't my mother affected?” Kenji asks. “I mean, she was there, too...”

“It could be that it was your father's bloodline that was exposed to the Island's Heart,” I suggest. “Or...and this is just a thought...maybe the genetic mutation is strongest in the youngest generation. I don't know. True to form, the Endless gave us answers that only lead to more questions.”

“Where exactly does the Endless fit into all of this?” Rochelle asks. “Am I allowed to ask that?”

I feel my eyebrows lift in surprise. “I would have thought that much would have been obvious. But then...I suppose you only met her once. Maybe it's more obvious when we're side by side.”

“...What is?”

I sigh a little. This one is my secret to tell. Only mine. I don't want to tell it. But they need to know. “That I am the Endless. Or rather...she is—was—an alternate version of me.” I reach for Jake's hand, and he folds my hand between his palms while I tell them the story of the Endless. How the first version of me survived while everyone else died and learned to reset the time loop. I explain how she guided us from the shadows, how she went back further than she ever had when it became clear that she had to change the Vaanti or else we would continue to be slaughtered. I explain how it took over two thousand cycles to get it right, for the naive version of me to reach the Threshold with all twelve idols and everyone alive. I hesitate before telling them that the Endless was prepared to sacrifice the world in order to give me a life and an existence with the only family she had ever known.

“None of this is actually relevant to the situation at hand. The Vaanti...the Endless...any of it. But I did say I was going to tell you everything.”

“We appreciate your trust,” Grayson replies. “But...as to the matter at hand: do you know how to get Tahira back?”

“I know that I have the ability to get her back,” I answer. “Exactly how it's going to end up working, that's going to take a little figuring out. But I do have a good idea of where to start.”

“Where is that?”

“Tahira first came through the Prism Gate as a baby, right? I don't know for sure, but the concept ultimately seems similar to the Lernaean Gate.”

“But the crystal shards weren't enough to power the Lernaean Gate on their own,” Diego points out. “It needed half the Island's Heart.”

“Right. But clearly the Prism Crystal was enough to make a portal strong enough to send an infant child through. Clearly having my life energy contained in it makes it a little more powerful than the average crystal shard. Maybe not on the level of the Island's Heart, but there's enough energy in there to at least make a one-way portal.” I look at Grayson and Rochelle. “...I've been to Vaanu's homeworld before. Psychically, anyway. When I was touching the crystal pillar on the rooftop of The Celestial. The crystal shards had a way of...communicating with me. I have an idea that I may be able to find a way to communicate with Tahira. To guide her back through the Prism Gate.”

Rochelle swallows hard. “Do you really think that would work?”

“It might. I mean...I was able to reach Varyyn from Hartfeld with Diego's help. And Quinn was able to find the Island's Heart. It's a larger distance obviously, but we won't know until we try. But before we know anything, I'll need to get my hands on the Prism Crystal.”

“But we don't know where it is,” Grayson says grimly. “It was recovered after the gala, but we don't know what Dad did with it after that.”

“...Actually...we do. Sort of.” Dax looks thoughtfully past me, gazing out the window over my shoulder. “Silas Prescott briefly held Tahira captive before the big battle went down. She...escaped when her birth parents' voices came through the repaired Prism Gate. They somehow provided her with the power and strength she needed to escape.”

I feel my eyebrows lift. “...Well, that's a new one.”

“Only problem is...we don't know where she was held.”

“She never told you?”

“...Things were a little...crazy. I guess that bit of information slipped through the cracks.”

I sigh. “Well...perhaps if I'm in Northbridge, I can track it. I mean...it is my life energy. That's gotta be worth something, right?”

“That worked when we were looking for the idols,” Jake points out.

“But maybe we don't have to waste the time,” Poppy says slowly. “...Wasn't Caleb held captive with her?”

“We haven't seen Caleb at all since the Battle of Northbridge,” Eva protests.

“Normally, I'd say 'good riddance',” Kenji sighs. “But it would help if we don't have to send Alodia all over Northbridge, hoping she'll be able to track the Prism Crystal. Not to mention that if the Gate is intact...”

“Are you sure Caleb can be trusted?” Dax asks uncertainly.

“Hell, no!” Kenji snorts. “I have a policy of not trusting anyone who has literally put a flaming sword through my gut.”

“Good policy,” Jake agrees, smirking.

I smile faintly, but I don't comment. I've been suddenly reminded of Lila, and how she came down on the right side in the end. And that reminds me that the Endless said that Lila had been revived. ...And then I think of the woman I saw at the In-N-Out a few months ago...

“But,” Kenji goes on, breaking into my thoughts, “we need the Prism Crystal, and the Prism Gate. For Tahira.”

“We'll find them,” Eva promises. “We'll find Caleb and get it out of him. Even if it takes...force.”

I look at them for a long moment, taking each of them in. Finally, I say, “Perhaps this is a good thing. In the time it takes you to locate the Prism Gate, we can arrange to take the time off and fly to Northbridge.”

“I've already been planning to invent a family emergency,” Diego says. “Possibly in Mexico.”

“I know your reputation probably works in your favor when it comes to getting time off,” I say, unable to keep the pride from my voice. But then my smile slips. “...But Uncle Rob might not be so generous to Jake.”

“Nepotism isn't always all it's cracked up to be,” Grayson sighs. “We'll fly home first thing in the morning, and we'll contact you as soon as we have any information.”

* * *

Morning sickness prevents me from properly seeing them off the next morning—and Jake, since he refuses to leave my side while I've got my head down the toilet bowl.

“You feel crappy enough already,” he declares. “If you get it in your hair, you'll just add frustration to the mix.”

Problem is, I already feel frustrated that the puking hasn't stopped yet, and his goddamn thoughfulness is making me feel so fucking grateful, and for some reason, I'm furious about that, which only makes me feel guilty, and by the time I stop puking, I'm sobbing. I curl up in his arms, dabbing at my face with a wad of toilet paper, hiccupping and gulping while he rocks me tenderly and strokes my hair.

“I'm still waiting for this whole pregnancy thing to feel magical,” I grumble. “Right now, it's all puke and sore boobs and I'm tired all the time...and I swear to God, if you're laughing at me, you're a dead man.”

The soft chuckling above my head stops. “Not laughing, Princess. Promise. At least, I'm not laughing at you.” I feel him kiss my hair. “I admit, I don't actually have a lot of experience with pregnant women and their troubles. I'm gonna do my best because I love you and it's my kid doing all this to you. But Grace and Michelle are gonna be the ones to talk to about this.”

“...Just a few minutes ago, I was actually furious with you for being wonderful and holding my hair.”

“Not sure that makes a whole lotta sense. But when you got a new human growing in your gut like an alien and pumping your brain full of chemicals, I don't think you gotta worry too much about making sense.”

I groan a little, getting to my feet. Jake braces me on one side. “Like an alien is right. I've been wondering if the reason my parents had so much trouble conceiving is because my father was an alien.”

“Maybe,” he muses as I make my way to the sink and squeeze toothpaste onto my toothbrush. “We didn't seem to have any trouble, though.”

“...True. Vaanu and my mother had to use IVF...” I stick the end of my toothbrush in my mouth and scrub like I'm angry at my teeth and gums.

“Well...you're half-human. That probably makes a difference.”

I spit in the sink and notice a couple flecks of red mixed in the with the white foam. When I take a gulp from the sink to swish around my teeth, there's a faint coppery taste. I spit that out and straighten, meeting Jake's eyes in the mirror.

“...I worry about River. I worry that something will be wrong with them.”

“Ahh, Princess...” He comes up behind me, cinching his arms around my waist, letting his hands rest on my abdomen. “Every mom worries about that kind of stuff.”

“Not every mom had an alien father,” I murmur as Jake plants kisses along the curve of my neck. I feel tears starting to rise behind my eyes again. “...Jake...I wish my mother were here...”

Jake's mouth pauses on my neck. “Your mother...?”

“Someone who loves me, whose been through this and could help me through it...”

“What about Diego's mom? She was basically your mother growing up.”

“Yeah, but...” I draw in a shuddering breath. I don't want to start crying again. “I don't know, Jake. I just felt so envious of Tahira yesterday. To have her mother fighting for her like that. ...That's what I want.”

“Since Tahira is adopted and an only child, I must say I don't think Rochelle would be someone you could swap pregnancy stories with. At least...none that would do anything to ease your anxieties.”

“Maybe not. But that's such a small part of what I want. I mean...I was adopted, but it's not like the people who adopted me actually wanted me. The closest things I had to parents were somebody else's.”

I want you. Your real family wants you.”

I sigh. “I know, Jake. I know...”

He is quiet for a moment, his arms tightening around me. “...I wish I knew what to say...”

“There's really no need to say anything,” I murmur, leaning into his embrace. “...Just hold me.”

“Well, that I can do.” He nuzzles my neck. “...I will say this, though: it ain't wrong to wish for something you didn't have. But your past also ain't gonna stop you from being a good mother, if you were ever worried about that. Hell, just look at what history Aleister and Grace had to overcome, but they're doing all right with Reggie.”

I smile a little. I probably know their histories more intimately than Jake or any of the others. “That's true.” I sigh a little. As I gaze in the mirror, it seems to me that I can see a bit of a potbelly starting to push out from underneath my babydoll pajama top. “I'm not sure if I'm starting to show, or if that's just bloating.”

“Hmm. I dunno. You do look different.”

“Different good or different bad?”

He chuckles. “You'll never look bad to me unless you're not healthy.”

I turn in his arms to wind my arms around his neck. “...You are very good at saying the right things,” I inform him, and capture his mouth in a tender kiss. I've got months left to worry about my baby. Right now, I just want to be with my love.

 

Kenji

 

I am entering my mother's office in disguise. Bronze all over my body to visit my own mother at work. If I were to visit as myself, she'd be annoyed with me for interrupting her day. The thought is a bitter one, and I feel guilty for it. Our relationship has improved by leaps and bounds lately, but there's still a big difference between the way she treats me and the way she treats Talos. Though, to be fair, her relationship with Talos has improved by leaps and bounds, too. It's how Minuet and I are able to walk into the DA's office without an appointment and not only be shown right in, but offered coffee while we wait in cushy office chairs in front of her desk.

It's about twenty minutes before my mother comes in and takes her seat behind the desk. She sighs as she sits down. She must be having a stressful day, because I recognize the way her eyelids droop slightly as she sinks into the chair. She's been known to make the same face sinking into her armchair at home after a particularly exhausting day at work. This chair is heaven right now, she often sighs. After taking a moment to savor the sensation of being seated, she seems to remember that we're here.

“Sorry to have kept you both waiting.”

“Not at all, DA Katsaros,” I reply, waving my hand dismissively. “We didn't have an appointment. We knew we might be waiting awhile.”

“How can I help you?”

“We were wondering if you have received any new information on either Stonewall or the Man on Fire. The latter in particular.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Why the latter in particular?”

“Well, for a couple reasons. In spite of Dragonness recruiting him at least temporarily before the Battle of Northbridge, he hasn't been seen since. The alliance was a shaky one to begin with, built on questionable ground.”

“He joined us to promote anarchy and chaos by taking out this city's unofficial ruler,” Minuet adds. “We're concerned that with Dragonness MIA, he may revert to his old habits.”

“We're also hoping to persuade you to let us deal with him first.”

“And why is that?”

“Because we need him. We need some information from him. Information that will help us bring Dragonness back.”

Mom raises her eyebrows. “Back? Back from where? I had rather assumed she was dead.”

“So did we, to be honest. But she isn't. She's alive. But she's trapped in another dimension.”

“How do you know?”

“Never mind how we know. You'll just have to trust us on that. We know she is alive, and we know that we need access to the Prism Gate to bring her back.” I exhale slowly. “Silas Prescott repaired the Prism Gate. Dragonness and Man on Fire were both held captive in his facility where it was stored two days before the Battle of Northbridge. ...Man on Fire has been escaping from prisons and handcuffs probably about as long as you've been the DA, give or take. Let us find him and get the location of the Prism Gate out of him, and you'll also gain the location of the only cell that's ever been able to hold him. Certainly the only one you can trust to hold him since he gained his abilities.”

Mom pins me with a penetrating gaze. As the silence stretches on, I feel myself starting to squirm. I'm disguised as Talos, but I'm still Kenji. And nothing unsettles Kenji more than Mom's penetrating stare. Finally, she clears her throat.

“We don't currently have any solid leads on either Stonewall or Man on Fire. ...However, there were reports last week from some beat cops who came across a few petty criminals with a stash of liquid prism in an abandoned apartment complex in Bayside. The criminals were arrested before they had a chance to inject themselves and the liquid prism was confiscated and returned to Prescott Industries.”

“Are those criminals still in custody?” Minuet asks.

“For now. I expect you want to question them?”

Minuet smiles placidly, leaning back in her chair. “Oh, yes,” she replies, her voice somehow tranquil and gleeful at once. “Very much.”

 

Estela

 

My mother has been wondering about my comings and goings the past week or two. I explain the situation to her over breakfast a few days after the Prescott entourage get back from California. She watches me quietly while I lay out the facts for her, her expression carefully neutral.

“I had been wondering if you think you might be able to help us,” I remark.

“Help you? I'm not sure how I could.”

“Well, you were the first person to work out the Endless' abilities. You also worked on the Lernaean Gate. I suppose I just wondered if you might have some insights.”

She sighs. “I don't know. I mean, it's a possibility...but...”

“...But what?”

She doesn't answer right away. Silence stretches on for several minutes. I don't press her, but I can't help but grow impatient as she puts her chin down in her hand and turns to gaze out the kitchen window.

“...Working with crystals again...working with the Omega specimen--”

“She isn't a specimen, Mom. Her name is Alodia, and she's a person.”

“Yes, Estelita, I know. But...the point is that I thought I was leaving this all behind. I tried to leave because the things we were working with were dangerous. Because I didn't want to be a part of it. Because I wanted to stop it.”

“...It's all more complicated than what it appeared to be when you were working for Rourke,” I murmur. “An innocent...no, more than innocent...a woman who tried to protect people from a man just like Rourke and the corrupted power he was weilding now needs our help. ...Her mom needs us to bring her daughter home.”

“I know, Estelita. ...I will help you if I can. But I will not try to pretend I am not afraid.”

I feel my chest tighten. I reach across the table to take my mother's hand.

“...We're all afraid, Mom. ...I spent a long time feeling afraid. But then I found my friends.” I feel a smile form on my mouth. “...And now you and I have each other, too.”

She smiles back at me. “Even that feels a little frightening, though. ...I thought I was dead and gone...”

“I think you and Alodia might be able empathize with each other about that.” We lapse into silence for a moment, sipping on our coffee. Then as a thought occurs to me, I feel a frown crease my forehead. “Hey...Mom...?”

“Yes?”

“...When I first saw you again at the Prescott masquerade, you were dressed like Flora Sullivan.”

“Like who...?”

“The Bride? The Vaanti Bride? The woman who was one of the Vaanti's first human ancestors?”

“Oh, is that who I was dressed as? You mentioned her, but I don't know if you ever told me her name.”

I feel my frown deepen. “...Why that costume? If you didn't know anything about her...?”

My mother shrugs, looking a little uncomfortable. “To tell you the honest truth, the costume turned up in a package on my doorstep. The return address was from Rourke International. Although I realized the sensible thing to do might have been to throw it away, I figured that Rourke wasn't actually managing the company anymore, and in fact, my own daughter was in charge now--”

“Well, with Aleister.”

“Of course. ...I thought maybe you had realized I was alive and you were trying to reach out to me. In the box, though, all I found was the costume with a note telling me to wear it to the Prescott masquerade. Oh, and of course a ticket to the ball. The handwriting wasn't yours, though...”

“May I see the note? If you still have it?”

“Well...all right. I think I might still have it in the junk drawer here...”

She goes to open the drawer and rummage through it. I hear the rattle of pens and pencils for a moment, and then she returns to the table with a folded piece of lined flashcard paper. I take it from her and unfold it. I study the note, with its hand-printed letters neat and precise, each one perfectly placed between the blue lines. Each stroke of the pen is bold, as if whoever wrote it was pressing hard. It's instantly familiar. I saw it once in a small book that Zahra was passing around while Alodia and Jake were off on their honeymoon. I saw it before that, as I hunched over a piece of paper in Rourke's office at The Celestial with Alodia and Aleister, laboriously working out the password to his computer. Alodia pressed the pen hard to the page, her tongue caught between her teeth and her forehead creased with concentration as she matched constellations to names and months, and the pen left behind neat, precise printed letters.

...The note that brought my mother into my path was the work of the Endless.

 

Eva

 

It takes a bit of...persuasion, but the two petty crooks eventually give us a lead on Caleb. Unfortunately, that lead is irritatingly at least thirty miles outside the Northbridge city limits, in some podunk town halfway to Hartfeld. Seems Caleb wasn't keen to stay in Northbridge with Stonewall still at large. He's taken up with a squatter gang in some abandoned buildings at the edge of a forest preserve. Kenji and I have to park our car on the side of a crumbling road and hike up a hill through a maze of trees to reach the place. I wait to put my mask on until we're safely concealed by the trees. Following my lead, Kenji transforms into Talos when he's sure the coast is clear. Ultimately, though, it seems are caution was unnecessary, since we can't find anyone in the derelict village. But it is clear that people are still living here, if not legally, than at least relatively comfortably. There are mattresses, pillows, and blankets on the floors. Portable generators in each abandoned home power space heaters, fans, lights, microwaves, portable stoves, and mini fridges stocked with bottled water. An unlocked footlocker contains non-perishable edibles. There's no running water, but there are porta-potties. I don't know how they keep clean here, but maybe they aren't overly concerned with that. At the least, there are bottles of hand sanitizer and a first aid kit under the sink.

“Well, this place seems...not terrible,” Kenji remarks. “Well-stocked. Mostly liveable...”

“If you don't mind the faint smell of urine and...other stuff...” I mutter, well aware that I am breathing through my mouth as much as possible.

“Now if we could only find...” He trails off abruptly, his gaze drifting to the window. “Oh! Well, speak of the devil.”

I follow his gaze and see Caleb coming down the hill with a backpack on his shoulders. I press my back flush against the wall, keeping out of sight as I watch him. He glances furtively over his shoulder, but doesn't peek in our direction. When he seems satisfied that he's alone, he creeps toward another abandoned building. I slip towards the door, keeping him in my sight. Stretching out a hand, I gather my power. It's taken me awhile to gain as much control over time as I have now. At first, I was limited to slowing it down within the field, and I couldn't control who was affected, or how long it lasted, or how slow time went for them. But I have been practicing. While slow motion is still my speciality and the most useful, I've also learned how to accelerate time. I've gotten better at controlling the speed of it, too. For now, though, I go with the old standby. I reach out, grasping time around Caleb and stretching it like a piece of taffy. Within the narrow field, time slows to a crawl, and Caleb moves like he's suddenly swimming in syrup. I hear him swear under his breath.

“MINUET!” he groans. “What the hell?!”

I narrow the field further as Talos comes up behind him to wrap his arms around him. Caleb's arms are pinned to his sides. As I withdraw the slow-motion field entirely, moving into his line of sight, he struggles, his expression irritated more than anything.

“Don't try anything funny,” Talos warns. “You can't do much damage to me from your current position.”

“I'm not planning on doing anything funny!” he whines. “At least nothing that would concern you two idiots! What the hell do you want with me!”

“Just information,” I purr. “We want to know where Silas Prescott held you and Dragonness.”

He blinks. “...That's it? I'd have thought she'd have told you.”

“Unfortunately, she was a little distracted with the task of protecting Northbridge from Prescott,” Talos says flatly.

Caleb frowns. “Why do you need to know?”

“We need access to the Prism Gate. We understand that Prescott repaired it, and it was contained in the same facility where he held you.”

He starts to struggle again, his eyes darting back and forth. “Look...guys...I got some stuff I gotta take care of before Gigi gets back...”

“Gigi?” Talos repeats. “You got yourself a girlfriend?”

Caleb lets out a bitter bark of laughter. “Gigi? A girlfriend? Good one. I wouldn't wish that sadistic bitch on my worst enemy.” In an instant, his smile fades and his head snaps back up. He looks around wildly again, almost as if he's worried that this Gigi person heard him. “Look, the point is, I gotta take care of this stuff. If I tell you what you need to know, will you let me go?”

Talos and I exchange a glance. His eyes may be mostly concealed by a bronze film, but the brief incline of his head tells me what I need to know. I pin my gaze on Caleb.

“Start talking. Tell us what we need to know, and I won't leave you moving in slow-motion for Gigi to find.”

 

Blaire Hall

 

Cassandra Chandler. Who is Cassandra Chandler? Apparently, she used to work for my company, but she died about twenty-seven years ago. Back then I was still climbing the ladder at Mansingh Transglobal, not yet CEO, but well on my way. Her personnel files don't seem to exist anymore, at least not anywhere that I can reach them. I would have left it there, but the fact that Everett Rourke Senior was asking...my daughter's father-in-law...the man whose insanity almost got her killed...

I can't just leave it at that. Her name keeps creeping into my mind when I should be focused on other things. She's a song that's gotten stuck in my head, an itch at the back of my mind that needs scratching. I should be asleep right now, but instead, I'm digging on the internet for a ghost. I let Rourke keep talking long enough to gather that she died in an aviation accident, so that's where I begin. It takes almost an hour of clicking and searching and chasing down clues like breadcrumbs, but at last, I come across an obituary from a New York City paper. I sip at tea that's long gone cold while I read it.

 

Matthew Chandler and his wife, Cassandra (nee Sullivan) of Manhattan were victims of Wednesday's deadly plane crash. Cassandra, originally of Boston, MA, received both her BS in Communications and her Masters in Computer Science from Hartfeld University before moving to New York City to work for Mansingh Transglobal as a researcher. It was in Manhattan that she met Matthew, a history scholar who worked for the local library. The couple lived in SoHo.

The couple is survived by a seven-month-old daughter, Alodia Rose. Cassandra is survived by one sister, Molly (Robert) Fisher, of Riverside, CA.

 

...Alodia. Alodia Chandler. So that's it. Cassandra Chandler was the mother of Alodia Chandler. The girl who spent five years in suspended animation because of Rourke's insane obsession with her. I exhale slowly. It's no mystery why he would want information on her. What exactly made him fixate on that girl is anyone's guess, but obviously anyone associated with her would fascinate him, too.

Still...why, after five years, would he just be looking into Alodia's family now? Why now, when he and I have not spoke for years, would he suddenly call me asking for information on this woman? If he didn't know before that she had worked for Mansingh Transglobal, how did he find out when he is supposed to be locked away in a hospital for the insane?

I push back from my desk and stand up, wandering toward the kitchen. I need to put on a pot of coffee. I realize now I'm not going to be sleeping very much tonight.

 

 

Chapter Text

Alodia

 

Dead security screens gleam black on either side of me as I struggle down the hallway of MASADA, heading for the hangar. Mike and I support Jake between us, each of us tucked under one arm, hugging his waist. His steps are heavy with effort, his breath coming shallow and labored. While Kele and Craig keep us covered, Aleister and Zahra keep pace with us, unlocking hatches in front of us and closing them behind.

“Hold on, Jake,” I murmur. “Just hold on. We're almost there. Just a little further.”

“I'm...feeling kinda funny, Princess,” he mumbles, his voice tight with agony.

“You are funny,” I retort. “You're hilarious. ...Stay with me, okay? You're gonna be fine. We just need to get you some place safe you can rest.”

Behind Jake's head, Mike catches my eye, and a fearful, knowing glance passes between us. We won't know the extent of the damage until Michelle can get a look at him, but Jake definitely doesn't look well.

“I see Estela's group!” Zahra announces triumphantly. “They have Taari!”

A hatch opens in front of us, and the other half of our group streams through, led by Estela and Varyyn. Sean, Michelle, and Seraxa are behind them, Seraxa cradling Taari on her hip. The Vaanti child has his arms around his foster-mother's neck, his face pressed into her shoulder; it's a posture that's almost foreign on him, the pose of a terrified child.

“Shit!” Michelle hisses as her eyes fall on Jake. “What happened to him?!”

“Lundgren happened,” I reply grimly. “We have to get him some place safe.”

Cold dread is growing in my belly. A vague sense of foreboding skitters up the back of my neck and raises goosebumps on my skin.

“The hangar is just this way,” Michelle says. “Wake up, Alodia.”

I shake my head to clear the cobwebs. “Sorry. Let's go.”

Wake up, Alodia... The thought comes to my mind unbidden. We're in the hangar now, cramming into the chopper. Mike's in the pilot's seat, Zahra climbs in beside him. I curl up on the floor with Jake cradled in my lap, and the others squish in like Tetris pieces.

You've been here before. Get out. The thoughts are louder now. A headache is starting to build behind my eyes.

“Varyyn,” I mutter. “What are you trying to say? Can't you just talk to me?”

Varyyn ignores me, his attention focused on Mike. “Why aren't we lifting?”

“There's a problem,” Mike replies grimly. “They've grounded us. They might have messed with some of the equipment...”

“It's a signal,” Zahra says flatly. “I might be able to override it, but I'd need to...”

Alodia, you're dreaming! The voice in my brain is screaming now, the pain and pressure building unbearably. Zahra's words are drowned in the pounding of my blood against my eardrums. She's leaving the chopper...why is she leaving the safety of the chopper...?

Wake up, Alodia! Wake up! Wake up, or you're going to watch her die!

I open my eyes in the darkness of my own bedroom. The faint tremor of my startled awakening ripples through the mattress and shakes my husband out of a deep sleep. He sits up sharply, groping blearily for me. My trembling hand finds his and my fingers close as tight as I can manage. His free hand pushes sweaty strands off hair off my forehead.

“You okay, Alodia? ...Bad dreams again?”

“...I'm...I'm okay...” I assure him when I've caught my breath. “...I fought back this time.”

 

* * *

 

“Are you sure you want to do this alone?” Jake strokes my cheek tenderly, searching my face as I stand in the doorway with my purse on my shoulder. I step forward to give him a quick peck on the cheek.

“It will be better coming from me.”

“I just don't like the idea of you being alone with him.”

I sigh a little. “Jake, he's my uncle. I lived with him for twenty years. Please stop acting as if he's going to murder me every time I'm left alone with him.”

Jake shoves his hands in his pockets, pouting a little. “...I just don't like the way he treats you.”

“Neither do I. But come on. I'm tough. I can take it. And it's more likely to end well if I'm the one asking.

“Alodia...” He trails off, pursing his lips. Finally, he sighs. “I trust you. I trust your judgment. Just...call me if you want backup, okay? Seriously, I'm gonna hang out in the nearest coffee shop with my phone on the table.”

I chuckle, tapping his nose playfully. “Honestly, I wouldn't expect anything else.”

 

* * *

 

I drop Jake at the coffee shop and continue on to my aunt and uncle's house. Uncle Rob lets me in.

“Hey, pumpkin. Aunt Molly had a bit of a crisis at work, so it's just us.”

“That's okay. As I mentioned, you're the one I wanted to see anyway. ...What kind of crisis?”

“Oh, one of her patients having complications from surgery that she just wanted to check on. You know how it goes.”

“Right.”

“Well, take a load off. Not that you look like you have much load to take off yet.”

“Well, I am only thirteen weeks or so,” I reply, moving towards the living room. “River's only the size of a goldfish. ...I'm showing a little, though. But that's just my swelling uterus.”

“Well, I can't tell. Do you want anything to drink? Or eat? Any cravings I should be aware of?”

I try not to let my irritation show. This is not a good time for me to be picking a fight with him. Besides, he is trying to be thoughtful in his own slightly annoying way.

“Peanut butter has been the big one,” I confess. That makes him smile.

“You still like chocolate and bananas?”

“So far.”

“Then how about I go with an old favorite? Chocolate-banana-peanut-butter milkshake?”

In spite of myself, I feel a genuine smile on my lips. “Only if we can drink them out by the pool.”

“You got it, pumpkin.”

About twenty minutes later, we're stretched out on lounge chairs on the balcony. We started out by the pool, but the smell of chlorine started getting to me almost immediately. I've been nursing my milkshake, taking care with my touchy stomach, holding each mouthful on my tongue to let it warm before swallowing. Uncle Rob has already finished his. He watches me with something like fascination as I take another sip. When I meet his gaze, he clears his throat.

“So. You had something you wanted to talk to me about?”

I wait a moment to warm and swallow my mouthful before setting the glass on the table. I figure it's better to just come right out and say it, but I do need to prepare myself.

“...I need you to give Jake some time off. About two weeks. ASAP.”

Before I've even finished talking, he groans, closing his eyes and leaning back in his chair. “...Alodia...”

“I'm going to Northbridge and I need him to come with me. I know you don't like the idea of just giving him time off whenever he asks for it, but this is important. Important enough that he was willing to invent a dead relative to force your hand.” He looks sharply at me, and I meet his gaze, locking eyes. “I told him to trust you. I told him to let me ask you since I'm the one who needs you to give it to him.”

He purses his lips. His eyes never leave my face, and I can see him processing my words carefully. “...Will you tell me why?”

“Exactly why? No. I don't think I can do that.” I am quiet for a long moment. “...It has to do with something that happened to me on La Huerta.”

“Have you tried going back to that therapist?”

“Yes,” I answer truthfully. “I did go just one other time. And I may go back in the future. But that's not really relevant here. There is something I need to do. And I need him with me. ...I can't do it without him.”

He folds his arms, scowling. “You're not really giving me a lot to go on.”

“I know. That's by design.” I sigh. “...Look...Uncle Rob...some things happened to me on that island that I just can't talk about to you or Aunt Molly. Not yet. Possibly not ever. ...But Jake was there. Jake and Diego and our other friends...”

He doesn't answer right away. He breaks his gaze from mine and looks up at the umbrella stretched over us. I look up there, too. I count the spokes, notice that one is slightly bent. I study the way the light filters through the leafy pattern that runs unbroken over the umbrella like Celtic knotwork.

“I don't know if you're even aware what your disappearance did to me and your aunt.” He sounds a little hurt.

“I guess I don't,” I admit. “...Will you tell me?”

He is quiet a moment longer. He almost seems to be gathering his resolve.

“The first six months were kind of a blur. Obviously, we realized something was wrong when you and Diego weren't home when we thought you were going to be. That was the first time in years that we spoke to Ramona and Eduardo Soto. The four of us spent a week just camped in the living room with the 24-hour news channel on TV, our phones all in front of us...”

“...Like Jake and Diego and...and I did during the Battle of Northbridge.” I nearly mentioned Varyyn, too, but caught myself in time. Uncle Rob pauses, considering, but he doesn't answer that directly.

“We learned pretty quick that it wasn't just the two of you missing. Every student who had won that trip was missing. And after that...every day it seemed like someone else came forward to say that someone who had recently gone to La Huerta hadn't come back when they were supposed to. It was as if there had been some major disaster on the island that somehow had been totally missed. And once that was clear, there was the nightmare of waiting for investigators to come back with information. But it was like the island didn't want its secrets to be discovered. Storms. A small erruption that made it impossible for planes to get through. One disaster after another. I went to one authority after another, bribing, begging, threatening...Your aunt and I went through every stage of grief over those six months. ...We were even picking fights with Ramona and Eduardo.”

“Picking fights? What about?”

“We accused them of turning their backs on their son for his sexuality. ...They accused us of never appreciating our daughter.”

His use of the D-word makes me freeze. I suppose legally, I could be considered his daughter. They did offically adopt me. ...But neither he nor Aunt Molly has ever called me that. Diego's parents have always called me “mija,” and even though they used the same nickname for every young girl in their neighborhood, it had always felt to me like an unofficial adoption. I have always been the Sotos' honorary daughter. I just lived with an aunt and uncle who were technically legally responsible for me.

“...The really frustrating thing is that both sides were right. And both sides knew both sides were right. But we were all too angry for awhile just to express remorse and cry together. We got to that stage somewhere around Christmas. ...The first major 'first' for both families. The first major holiday without our kids. The first, we thought, of many. Aunt Molly and I wanted to get you kids our usual obscene haul of useless presents, make sure you ate well while we were out at all our usual holiday parties, and come home to find you both passed out in your room with Christmas specials still going on TV. ...The Sotos...they just kept thinking back to when you kids were younger and they were the ones to take you in over Christmas. ...Basically, that was when we all finally admitted that neither of you kids had been appreciated the way you should have been. ...Aunt Molly and I had been off at parties when we could have been spending time with you watching Christmas specials. Ramona and Eduardo had lost three years' worth of Christmases with Diego that they were never going to get back now. ...Christmas Eve, the four of us got together and just cried the whole night.”

I'm staring at my uncle now, numb with these revelations. I could have imagined Aunt Molly crying over me. ...But Uncle Rob...?

“...Then,” he continues, “...In January...”

“...The others were found,” I finish softly. “...Diego and the others.”

“Diego. Your classmates. The missing hotel guests. ...But not you.”

“Not me,” I agree softly.

“There was hope. And then it was gone. But only for Molly and me. Everyone else got their people back. For everyone else, the nightmare was over. But for us, it was just beginning. All over the news, they said how lucky it was that the whole situation didn't come out worse. Only one casualty out of potentially thousands. But...the one casualty was ours. ...I almost put my foot through the TV more than once. ...Molly and I could barely talk to the Sotos anymore. They had their kid back. They had their second chance. We didn't get that.”

“You have it now,” I point out. “I mean...I'm here...”

“Yeah. You are. And now that you are, I don't know what the hell to do.”

I don't really know how to answer that. I have memories of a lifetime spent with him and my aunt. At first, all the memories that didn't include Diego felt false. Like dreams, or scenes from a TV show. I watched myself acting, convinced that I could see the special effects, the camera crew just out of frame. At the place where every memory turned fuzzy, I felt sure the actors playing my aunt and uncle had just heard a director yell, 'Cut!' and dropped their characters to walk off set for a coffee break. Gradually, those memories have become reality as the timelines have merged and repaired themselves. And with that reality, there has come all the hurt and anger and resentment of being a child unwanted by the people who were supposed to love her. But...my aunt and uncle aren't evil. They aren't cruel. Except for one moment that hangs between me and my uncle, they weren't physically abusive like Marcus Gayle. They were certainly neglectful to a point, but they never belittled me like Everett Rourke did to Aleister, or placed me under the kind of pressure that Grace got from Blair Hall. They never rejected me like Diego's parents rejected him. I needed more from them than what I got. They did not do well with their parenting. But for what our situation together was, they could have done much worse.

“...Uncle Rob...it was never all bad, you know. ...I have good memories, too. Of Aunt Molly, and of you. I remember you teaching me to swim and ride a bike. I remember you helping me and Diego build forts out of sheets and blankets all over this house, even though Aunt Molly complained about the mess we were making. ...You used to wrestle with us and give us piggyback rides.”

He sighs. “Those were the only parts of fatherhood I wanted. ...The fact is, I didn't want to be a father. I wanted to be an uncle. I don't have any siblings, and with as much trouble as your parents had getting pregnant, I was pretty sure you'd be the only niece I ever had.” He smiles faintly. “The day I met you in person was just before your parents went off on vacation. They came to stay with us for a week before driving back to New York so that your mom and Molly could spend some time together beforehand, and so that you could get used to us. I picked you right up and said right in front of your parents, 'I'm gonna spoil you rotten, kiddo'.”

I feel a smile on my own mouth. “How did my parents react?”

“Your dad didn't say much. Your mom just sighed and made me promise she'd get you back in one piece.”

“...But she didn't get me back at all...”

“No. ...The thing is...I was willing to put up with the diaper-changing and the feeding for a month or so because I thought I'd give you back to your parents at the end. ...But all I'd ever really wanted to be to you was a cool uncle. The kind who'd built pillow forts with you or take you to amusement parks and movies and buy you all the toys your parents said you didn't need. I wanted to see you a few times a year and slip you ten bucks every time without worrying about whether you were being spoiled. I wanted to buy you ice cream and let your parents worry about making you eat your vegetables.”

“You've said similar things before. So has Aunt Molly. ...She says that's why you hired Ramona Soto.”

“Yeah, I guess it was.”

“...I know it was hard for you, rearranging your life to fit me in. I'm not...I'm not going to say I can't appreciate that. Or that I'm not grateful that you did it. ...But I was just a kid, Uncle Rob. I never asked for my parents to die. I never even asked to be born. ...I can't even remember my parents' faces. For as long as I can remember, you've been my legal guardians. ...And I've grown up knowing that you didn't really want me around. Especially you.”

“...I'm sorry.”

I am quiet for another long moment. I don't look at Uncle Rob. I'm not sure I can. “...I need to do this. I need to go to Northbridge. I need Jake with me. ...So I need you to give him the time off.”

“...All right.”

 

Diego

 

We leave for Northbridge early Tuesday morning, taking Allie's car to a private airport where Aleister has promised to have a plane fueled and ready for us. As we approach the wide-body jet on the tarmac, with its airstair already lowered, Jake and I exchange an amused look. I point to the name written above the cabin windows in flowing script.

“Looks like we've got Castor this time,” I remark.

“'Castor'?” Allie repeats.

“Castor and Pollux were apparently Everett Rourke Senior's two favorite planes in his entire private fleet,” Jake explains. “The most high-tech, the most luxurious, the most everything. Damned fun to fly, too.”

“I think Aleister takes special pleasure in being able to command those two planes to ferry his friends around when we need ferrying.”

“Don't think you've been in either Castor or Pollux yet,” Jake says thoughtfully. He grins at his wife. “So get ready to feel like a real princess.”

“It sure looks a lot bigger than what we need for two pilots and three passengers,” she remarks.

“Well, yeah!” I agree. “The interior has more space than my parents' place in Riverside! It's got an office, a bedroom, a dining room...”

“Inside a plane?” She shakes her head bemusedly. “Jesus, and I thought my folks liked to show off.”

“Come on, you know Molly and Rob Fisher have got nothing on Everett Aleister Rourke the First.”

“True. I think a private jet would have been a little much even for their tastes, let alone one with an honest-to-god bedroom. ...Besides, after what happened to my mom, it's not like Aunt Molly would be willing to use it much.”

We load our suitcases into the cargo bay and board the plane, entering at the lavish office. Allie whistles lowly. “Good lord, you weren't kidding. I thought those planes from La Huerta and Northbridge were fancy, but this is insane.”

“Yup. It's also the only way to travel.” I slip my shoes off and flop down on a sectional sofa, leaning back on the soft throw pillows.

“Careful, pup,” Jake snorts. “The laws of physics still work in this thing, so stay upright and buckled in until we get the plane level, got it?”

Varyyn chuckles, settling into one of the cushy mounted seats by a round formica table. “Come sit beside me, my love. Let me hold your hand.”

“Well, I can't possibly resist that invitation.” I pull myself off the couch and go to sit beside him, reaching for his hand. Allie sighs as she sinks into a seat across from us.

“I wish I had a hand to hold,” she grumbles. “But my husband has to fly the damn plane.”

Jake bends to kiss her. “You can come join Mike and me up in the cockpit once we're level, okay? For now, you should stay put here.”

She returns his kiss. “Very well. I will yield to the captain this time.”

The three of us settle in as Jake and Mike move up to the cockpit. Allie grabs one of the blankets and drapes it over her legs. I look across the table at her.

“What kind of time off were you able to get for Jake?”

“Two weeks. With luck, we'll have figured out how to get Tahira back by then.”

“With all the Catalysts working together, plus Mike, plus Varyyn, plus Tahira's family and friends? I think we can probably work it out quick enough.” I smile reassuringly, trying not to show that I'm still nervous about the whole situation. “In any case, two weeks is a little more than you were expecting, isn't it?”

“...Yeah...but I think Uncle Rob was feeling guilty.”

“About what?”

“...Everything. ...Lost time. The way he treated me.” She is quiet for a moment. “...He was telling me about those six months that everyone was looking for us. Before...before I gave myself back. Apparently, he and Molly were fighting with your parents about who had been the worse parents. They accused your parents of turning their backs on you, and your parents accused them of never appreciating me.”

“Both are unfortunately true,” I sigh. “...After...after I came back and you didn't, I tried to talk to them sometimes. But I think they found it pretty hard to look at me and see me without you.”

She stares at me for a long moment. The plane starts to taxi toward the runway. There is something distant in her gaze that's somehow penetrating at the same time. After several seconds of her staring, I start to squirm.

“...Allie...? Something wrong? Because you're kinda freaking me out.”

She shakes her head, clearing her throat. “...Sorry. I just...it was weird to hear you talk about those five years between when I left and when I came back as if I'd had a childhood you could remember and a family you could go back to.”

“Well, you did. In this timeline.”

“But...you still didn't believe I was coming back.”

“No,” I admit. “As far as I knew, you were gone for good.”

“Did you know why I was gone for good? Did you know that I hadn't really existed?”

I open my mouth to reply, then close it again, frowning. ...Did I know that? In this repaired timeline, did I know that a timeline without her existed? I am silent, turning that question over in my mind. I ponder it as Jake announces the impending take-off from the cockpit. I keep pondering it as the plane gathers speed and lifts off the tarmac. My ears plug and pop and plug and pop again. The plane clears the clouds. I know that there was a timeline where she never existed before the island. I know that I once grew up without her support and love. That in one timeline, I willed her into being as we crossed into the time bubble. I know that I didn't believe she was coming back after she saved the world. And...only months ago, I was finding the first evidence of the life we'd spent together. But...what was my first clue that she was returning? What was the first impossible sign that everything I had once imagined was real?

“...I'll be honest, Allie. I'm starting to forget that whole timeline.”

She looks genuinely startled. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. I mean, obviously I know it existed. But don't ask me for details, because I don't think I can give you any.”

She exhales slowly, her eyes wide as she settles back in her seat. “Wow. That...that's great.”

“...It is?”

“Well, duh. I mean, given a choice between a timeline where you grew up lonely and one where I was there with you, which do you think I would rather you remember?”

“Well, when you put it like that...” I rub the back of my neck. “But you still grew up an orphan whose adopted parents neglected her.”

She shrugs. “I had you. ...And this means my entire existence wasn't watching my family die over and over again only to end up leaving everyone. I'll take it.”

I smile. “I think...I think in this timeline, I spent those five years remembering both timelines with equal clarity. I think I still believed that for all intents and purposes, you were gone. I didn't know that Vaanu was your biological father. None of us learned that before you did. I remember wondering about your biological parents, about the fact that your aunt and uncle were always so secretive about them. I know growing up we put that down to your aunt never really dealing with her grief, but after the island I started to suspect there were other things they weren't telling us. ...A part of me always believed there was a way to bring you back. But I never really knew where to start, and it still seemed that whatever your history on the planet, you had still been born for us, and you had still given your existence for us, and I was afraid to hope.

“I think at some point I lost touch with your aunt and uncle, and the timeline where you existed started to get fuzzier. Fuzzy enough that I convinced myself it wasn't real. I stopped talking about you to my parents, and I guess they didn't want to press me on the issue. ...Or else, they were forgetting you, too. But...then the whole Prism Gate thing happened, and I started to get my memories back.”

“...And now you can't remember the timeline where I didn't exist? Even when you think back to those five years?”

I shrug. “I think it's like any memory, Allie. Most of it fades with time, but the strong ones stand out. You being part of my life makes a stronger memory than me being lonely.”

“This is your captain speaking,” Jake's voice sounds from the cockpit. “The plane is now level, so if a certain princess wants to come up to the cockpit to keep a couple of ace pilots company so a certain puppy can have some alone time with Papa Smurf, she would be welcome.”

Allie chuckles, undoing her seatbelt. “I've been summoned.” She stands, moving toward the cockpit. “You fellas enjoy yourselves. I hear tell there's a bedroom in this bird.”

I watch her go. When she's out of sight, I turn back to Varyyn, who's smiling softly.

“She's getting stronger,” he remarks.

“You think so?”

“I know so. Remember, she and I are psychically linked. I have sensed her coming back into herself lately.”

I exhale slowly. “Good. That's very good. I think she's gonna need to be strong for this.” I meet Varyyn's eyes. My lips are drawn to his so suddenly that it even startles me. I let my tongue slip between his parted lips to taste the inside of his mouth. He returns the kiss, his hand coming up to cup my cheek. After a moment, he breaks the kiss to press his forehead to mine.

“She is strong, my love,” Varyyn murmurs. “She will make it through this.”

“I know,” I whisper. And somehow, at least in this moment, I do know. I believe him. I believe that Allie is strong enough to bring Tahira back safely, and be safe herself. I've spent enough time worrying. Besides...Varyyn's hand is creeping under my shirt.

“Shall we do as Alodia suggested? Find the bedroom?”

I laugh. “You can be such a horn dog.”

“Hmm?” He bats his eyes innocently. “I don't understand that term.”

“Liar,” I snort. “You've mastered cellphones and the internet, darling. You expect me to believe you haven't picked up enough English slang to know what a horn dog is?”

“Well, perhaps I do.” He kisses my throat. “But when my fasted partner is the most beautiful creature on the planet, how could I be blamed?”

“Well, you got me. When my fasted partner has such a silver tongue, how could I be blamed for being puddy in his hands? ...It's not a long flight, though.”

“Life is not a long flight, my love. We must cherish every moment of it.”

 

Alodia

 

I spend most of the flight in the cockpit, sitting in the third seat behind Jake and Mike, swapping stories.

“I gotta say, Goldilocks,” Mike remarks, “smoking pot while trespassing on an orange grove has got to be the single most California story of teenage rebellion I have ever heard.”

I snort. “'Goldilocks'? Is that your version of 'Princess'?”

“Sorry, Princess. You know I picked up the habit from him. ...You could let everyone call you Allie like Diego does.”

I shake my head. “Uh-uh. That would be like letting anyone but you call me Princess.” I push myself between them just long enough to peck his cheek. “And that would just feel wrong.”

“I suppose you're right.”

I sit back, putting a hand to my belly. It's definitely starting to swell a little more, though the baby is still too small for me to feel any movement.

“Of course, that makes me wonder what kind of nickname you'll give our baby if they turn out to be a girl. It would be kind of weird for you to call both of us Princess.”

“Plenty of nicknames exist for a baby girl. Besides, I'm gonna have to meet our kid before I decide what to nickname 'em.”

“They already have a name, but you have to wait to meet them before you give them a nickname?”

“Hey, a nickname isn't like a name. It's more...organic than the name your parents give you.”

I raise an eyebrow. “More organic?”

“He's right,” Mike agrees. “Nicknaming is an art. One Grandpa here is still kind of a novice in.” “Hey!” Jake reaches over to lightly punch his shoulder. “Who're you calling a novice?”

“Need I remind you about the bar in Portland three years ago? With the hot bartender? What was it you called her?”

“Ahhh! Hey!” Jake's cheeks turn red. “I was very drunk! And so were you, by the way. I could tell her about you hitting on that woman whose girlfriend happened to be sitting right next to her with her freakin' arm around her shoulders the whole time.”

“Hey, tell her what you want to tell her! She's not my wife!”

“Seriously, Mike?” I chide him, making a face. “The woman's girlfriend was right there, and you were still hitting on her? What exactly were you trying to do?”

“Okay, for the record, I was not hitting on her! We started a casual conversation about the fact that she was getting her Master's degree in writing, and it just happened that the conversation got increasingly weirder as we got drunker. I actually told her that she and her girlfriend made a very lovely couple.”

“Yeah, you were also pretty hung up on the idea that writer girl should make her girlfriend into a character in her next story.”

I snort. “Okay, note to self: be very careful letting you boys go drinking together. Seems you're prone to trouble.”

“...Much as I hate to part company with you, Princess, we're gonna begin descent in a minute. You might wanna head back and buckle up.”

“Oh, so soon?” I sigh.

“Afraid so. I have to concentrate on this part, and you tend to be a little distracting. Delightfully so, but I'd rather not crash and kill us all because I'm thinking about how gorgeous you are.”

“Oh, very well.” I stand up and bend to give him one more quick kiss. “But make an announcement for Diego and Varyyn's sake. I don't want to walk in on my brother and his husband in the throws of passion.”

Jake does as I suggest. I don't say anything about the disheveled state Diego and Varyyn are in when they return to the office and buckle up, but I can't help but smirk knowingly. They at least have the sense to comb their hair before we land.

Aleister and Estela are waiting for us when we disembark at the airport in Northbridge. I greet them both with hugs.

“Good to see you guys in person again.”

“And you,” Aleister agrees. “...Everything is ready whenever you are. We understand if you need to rest awhile first.”

Jake comes up beside me, slipping his hand into mine. I grip tightly, shaking my head. “No. I don't want to put it off any longer, and I don't want to make Tahira wait. Let's bring her home.”

* * *

We are taken to the abandoned clocktower in the center of Northbridge. Tahira's team have been using it as their base of operations, Estela explains, and apparently they have been for some time. I don't even have to ask about the Prism Crystal. I've been feeling it calling me since I stepped off the plane, and its cry has only grown louder as we approached. It doesn't hurt me the way it hurt Quinn to be pulled by the Island's Heart, or even the way it hurt me to feel the time energy ripped out of me when I got close enough to the crystal pillar back on the island. This time it actually feels...pleasant. Even pleasurable. Exciting. The only way to describe it is that it's like being a kid in December, hearing the first strains of Christmas carols, opening the first tab in my novelty Advent calendar to gobble the first tiny chocolate, writing the first draft of my Christmas list. And as we get closer and closer to the clocktower, the anticipation and excitement grow. Standing outside the clocktower, the excitement gives way to a contented calm. It feels right, being here. I feel that I can empathize with Vaanu, how he must have felt when we returned the completed Heart to the crystal pillar.

Tahira's team are all waiting for us, and so are the rest of the Catalysts. A massive object that can only be the Prism Gate stands in the corner of the control room. The Prism Crystal is mounted amidst wires and rods beside it, gleaming with pink fire. The set up is familiar. We saw it five years ago in Theoretical Prismatics at MASADA.

“Hey! Look who's here!” Grinning, Raj bounds over to wrap me in a hug that, while not lacking in enthusiasm, is somewhat gentler than his usual crushing embraces. He pulls back and ruffles my hair, beaming. “Being careful not to crush the baby peanut.”

I chuckle. “Baby peanut appreciates that.”

Jake is cautiously approaching the Prism Gate, eyeing it warily. “So...this is the...um...?”

“The Prism Gate,” Dax confirms. “Let me tell you, getting it up here without Tahira's flight and super strength was a massive pain. Luckily, Grayson is extremely useful for hiring things like giant cranes.”

“Why did you have to move it up here?” Diego wonders. “Couldn't we have worked with it wherever it was before?”

“Weellll...all my superhero-related research and stuff is here in the clocktower. I didn't want us to have to keep moving back and forth.”

“That was a good call,” Michelle agrees. “Especially in Alodia's condition. Speaking of which: Kenji, Eva, Craig, clear the couch. Alodia, lie down on the couch.”

Without waiting for any of us to respond, Michelle shooes Kenji, Eva, and Craig off the couch with a few waves of her hands, and marches over to hook her arm through mine.

“Wait, what?” I sputter slightly as she drags me over to the couch, gently but insistently, and pushes me to sit down.

“Come on, you knew this was coming. You're not going to do anything with that crystal until I'm satisfied that you're healthy.”

“I did have a check-up two days ago,” I protest. “OB says everything looks fine.”

“Well, we've got tools the OB doesn't. Lie back.”

“What tools?” I ask, even as I do as she tells me. She smiles, reaching into her medkit and pulling out a familiar orb. I laugh. “Iris!”

The hologram flickers to life, and Iris smiles placidly at me. “It is good to see you again, Alodia.”

“You, too! I'd hug you if you had a body.”

“With her help, this will all be a lot faster than it was when you first got back,” Michelle assures me. “No need for needle sticks, either. Iris? A full medical scan, if you please.”

“Certainly, Michelle.” Her hologram vanishes for a moment as a blue beam of light runs unhurriedly over my body, scanning from my head to my feet. She returns to her familiar human shape. “Maternal temperature: 97.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Blood pressure: 125/82. Whole blood count...”

She continues, rattling off letters and numbers that I can't entirely keep track of, while Michelle nods thoughtfully.

“Um...what does all that mean?”

“Those are all good numbers,” she assures me. “You're doing just fine. What about the fetus, Iris?”

“No abnormalities detected. Fetal heart rate is measured at 150bpm. Sex is--”

“Woah, hey!” I yelp. “Easy, Iris. We haven't decided if we want to be surprised or not!”

Iris smiles, looking amused. “Apologies.”

“Aww, man!” Craig grumbles.

“Relax, dude,” Raj says, nudging him with his elbow. “This just means we've got more time to get the pool going!”

“Are you guys seriously betting on the sex of my baby?”

Grace giggles. “They did the same thing when I was pregnant with Reggie,” she confesses.

“But...Aleister must have already known...given that he saw it when Vaanu gave him the magazine.”

Aleister smirks a little. “Yes. But I wasn't about to reveal it. Especially as Grace wanted to be surprised. I can be very good at keeping a secret when I put my mind to it.”

“So far 'boy' has the most votes,” Craig informs me. “My money's on 'girl', though.”

Estela suddenly clears her throat. “...If everyone will excuse me for a moment, I just need to slip downstairs for a moment.”

I frown, sitting up as she scurries for the door. “Why? Is something wro...” I trail off, as she's already on her way downstairs before the sentence is fully out of my mouth. The room goes silent as everyone exchanges confused glances.

Ten minutes later, we hear footsteps on the stairs outside. Estela returns, followed by a woman carrying a briefcase. I instantly recognize the woman. She looks straight at me, shifting uncertainly.

“...Hello, Alodia. I'm--”

“Olivia Montoya. I know.” I stand up, walking over to Estela's mother and extending my hand. “I'm so glad to finally be able to meet you properly.”

She shakes my hand. “I must say, I never thought I would meet you.”

“Same,” I reply, chuckling mirthlessly. “Considering that when I first learned of your existence you were dead.”

“...And I understand it is thanks to you that I am not dead now.”

“I had dearly wished to give everyone back what they lost. I am glad you ended up being included in all that.” I look around the room. “But if everyone is here who needs to be, could we get started? I'd really like to bring back someone else who's currently lost.”

“Agreed,” Rochelle says. “Where do we start? Alodia, I think you're the expert here. Or...at least you know better than anyone else where to begin.”

I nod. “Firstly, I think I should try just touching the Prism Crystal. If it's my life energy, then letting it actually come in contact with my body should provide us with some information at least.”

“What kind of information?” Poppy asks.

“I don't know exactly. It might not even be information that's useful to our purposes. But we should learn everything we can.”

“I quite agree,” Aleister says.

“Me too,” Dax adds, nodding. “That's the way science works sometimes.”

“I understand that's how science works,” Jake murmurs. “I ain't so keen on the idea of turning my pregnant wife into a guinea pig...”

“Yes, my love, and you have expressed your concerns at every turn in this journey.” When Jake scowls, I soften my words with a kiss. “Remember why I'm doing this, okay? Besides. I've never been harmed by the crystals. Even liquified time crystal just knocked me out for a little while.”

“The last time you touched a crystal, you disappeared!”

“I still wasn't harmed. Just...changed.”

“That seems to be the worst that has happened to anyone who comes in contact with the Prism Crystal,” Grayson says. “According to Hazel's research, coming in contact with the Prism Crystal only effects people with the right genes, and so far it's only made them more powerful.”

I nod. “The people whose ancestors came in contact with the Island's Heart. ...Who is Hazel, by the way?”

“A biologist who works for Prescott Industries. She's not...part of the inner circle, though.”

“...I see.”

“Anyway, those who aren't made more powerful by the Prism Crystal don't seem to be effected at all unless they inject themselves with liquid prism.”

“I still don't understand how any of them survived that,” Jake remarks. “The Clockmaker said liquified time crystal was highly toxic to humans.”

“A traitor to the Vaanti tried to poison Alodia with it on the island,” Varyyn says darkly. I glance at him, a little surprised to hear him speak of Uqzhaal with such venom. Even if he has never held the actions of the Endless against me, I would have thought he would still be at least conflicted in his feelings towards the old shaman, who had been like family to him once. But I suppose he has had five years to sort through his feelings and come down firmly on my side. I can't say that I'm sorry for it.

“He tried to poison me with a crystal shard from Vaanu's body. The Prism Crystal is my life force. And I'm half-human.” I shake my head. “Enough talk. I want to get this over with.”

I march toward the Prism Gate, but Jake catches my wrist. “Hang on, Princess. ...Just let me hold your hand, okay?”

I can't hold back a smile at that. “Sappy idiot.”

Your sappy idiot.”

“All mine.” We approach the Prism Gate together, and I pluck the pink crystal from its mount.

I feel the affects almost immediately. I realize I have to abandon the kid-at-Christmas metaphor, as what I'm feeling in this moment isn't quite so...G-rated. Pleasure floods my senses, the sensation of someone's tongue between my legs replicated across every cell in my body. Then orgasmic pleasure suddenly turns to agony as cold rushes in to take its place and suddenly every cell feels the prick of frozen needles. My blood sings in my ears, my vision filling with dark static. As abruptly as pleasure turned to pain, pain turns back to pleasure, rushing in with voices and visions that flash and bring me to what can only be described as a climax before flowing out of me in a satisfied sigh, leaving me warm and content. My heartbeat slows, and I start to perceive my surroundings again. I'm on the floor, cradled in Jake's arms. His face and the others clustered above me are fearful.

“Alodia!” Jake strokes my cheek with a trembling hand. “Stay with me, Princess. Can you hear me?”

“I hear you,” I mumble languidly. Jake and the others sigh collectively in relief. He bends to kiss my forehead.

“Are you all right?”

I feel my mouth lift in what feels like a very dopey grin. “I'm fine. ...Kinda wanna tear all your clothes off right here.”

“Let's get you to sitting up before you try anything else,” Michelle says firmly, taking my wrist between her fingers. “Iris? Any internal changes we should know about?”

“...Negative,” Iris replies after scanning me for a moment. “No damage either to Alodia or to the fetus.”

“Did you...see or hear anything, Alodia?” Varyyn asks. As I sit up, I notice him rubbing his forehead, grimacing. I frown, trying to collect my thoughts. There are images and sounds on the edges of my mind, lingering there like fragments of a dream that leave impressions but nothing solid to hold onto.

“I did...but I can't really get ahold of any of it.” I tip my head as I realize why he might be looking like that. “...Did I send any of it to you?”

“In bits and pieces. Maybe between us, we can piece it back together. ...Does the name Marci mean anything to you?”

Before I can reply, Dax looks up sharply. “Wait, what about Marci?”

“You know what that is?”

“Of course I know what she is, I made her! Machine-Augmented Recon Computer Intelligence. MARCI. She's an AI that I created and uploaded into Tahira's supersuit to give her tactical advice when Poppy and I aren't in the field with her.”

“You mean Tahira has her own Iris?” Quinn exclaims delightedly. “That's adorable!”

“Quinn!” Aleister yelps indignantly. “Iris is my mother, not a pet! A little respect, please!”

Dax blinks. “Wait, your AI is your mother?”

“Ehhh...” Aleister grimaces. “It's a long story, but basically, when my mother died, my father found a way to preserve her consciousness as an AI. Hardly an ideal situation. ...Particularly because he never bothered to tell me...”

“...I...see...” Dax shakes his head as if waking himself up. “We can come back to that. ...Why did you ask about Marci, Varyyn?”

Varyyn opens his mouth to answer, but I beat him to the punch. “I heard her talking. Saying something about how the atmosphere is breatheable. And a voice that must have been Tahira's answering.” I stand carefully with Jake's help. “...It's coming back to me in pieces. I know what we need, and I know what I need to do. ...Tahira's lost. Wandering and confused. Her only chance is for me to go through the Prism Gate and guide her home.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Jake

Alarm bells start sounding in my head, and I reach out to catch my wife's hand.

“Now, I know you ain't talking about going through that gate alone.”

Alodia meets my gaze steadily. “I don't think it will be necessary for me to go alone, no.” She brings my fingers to her lips to kiss them. “Please try not to panic, okay?”

I can't help making a face. “Easy for you to say...”

“The problem that I see with that idea,” Rochelle says glumly, “is that the Prism Crystal was never strong enough to create a portal to the world on the other side of it. Matter came through the Gate to our side, but we could never send anything back.”

“No, it wouldn't be strong enough,” Olivia agrees. “What you're talking about is a portal akin to the Lernaean Gate. The crystal shards were never strong enough to power that.”

“What I am talking about is something that is neither the Prism Gate, nor the Lernaean Gate,” Alodia replies firmly. “Tahira isn't just on her parents' home planet. She's in the space between realities. ...Like the first half of the Island's Heart and the Cygnus idol.”

“Aw, crap,” Zahra groans. “But the only way we know of to reach that place is--”

“By imbibing Elyys'tel's sap,” Varyyn finishes.

“We could get some,” I point out. “I mean, it'd be a little bit of a pain, but there's no reason Mike and I can't just fly to La Huerta and grab a sample. I'm sure Seraxa wouldn't mind.”

“There...isn't any need to go to such lengths,” Varyyn murmurs.

“...Wait, what?” The Vaanti reaches out to take Diego's hand, and that's when I notice Diego looking a embarrassed. Then he glances at Grace and Aleister, and they're suddenly looking shifty, too. “...What's going on?”

“We...have a few bottles of tree sap,” Diego confesses. “We have for a few years now.”

I think it's a full minute before the ensuing silence is broken by Craig.

“Okaaaaaaaaay...um...why?”

“It was my idea,” Diego explains softly. “...I think it might be due to the weird timeline stuff that been going on since Allie came back but...before our third reunion, I started wondering if there was a way to bring her back. By the time we got to La Huerta, I had become pretty convinced that she was out there somewhere. I...never got around to doing anything with them, but I begged Seraxa to let me take samples. Grace and Aleister helped me figure out a way to preserve them.”

“We used leftover stasis technology from the remains of the Observatory and MASADA,” Grace explains. “...And Diego exaggerates when he says he begged. He only needed to ask. Seraxa was actually more than willing to let him take samples.”

“...Oh...” Alodia blinks at them for a moment, then she frowns thoughtfully. “...Michelle...you have a token from the Endless, don't you?”

“Uh...yeah. She gave it to me before she died. Or strictly speaking, she gave it to Rochelle to give to me.” She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a small clock on a chain. Or...two small clocks. “You want to see it?”

Alodia expectantly holds out her hand, and Michelle passes her the clocks. She examines them for a moment, and her eyes widen.

“...Oh, god...Oh, my god...!”

“What? What is it?”

“These are Anachronist time pieces! The same kind they used to create rifts back on the island! I mean, I don't know how they work or what kind of powers they still have, but...” She looks back at the Prism Gate and the glowing, gleaming Prism Crystal. “...We can do this. We have everything we need.”

Rochelle looks up hopefully. “We do?”

Alodia meets her gaze and grins. “We have Anachronist timepieces. We have Elyys'tel's sap. We have Liquid Prism. We have a scientist and an engineer who worked on the Prism Gate, and one who worked on the Lernaean Gate and the Omega Project. We have the heirs to Everett Rourke's empire as well as Silas Prescott's, and we have all Twelve Catalysts. We've got every piece of the puzzle. We just need to put them all together.”

* * *

Ultimately, it takes a week of endless experimentation to 'put all the pieces together'. My role mostly consists of bringing Raj's packed lunches the scientists, making sure they're stocked on coffee, and generally being overprotective of my pregnant wife. Thankfully, I'm not the only one nagging her so she won't forget to eat or sleep while she's trying to help the science as much as she can. Diego and Michelle both have my back. Michelle has been playing the bad cop, and she's such a good bad cop that Diego and I don't even have to be the good cops all that much. Of course, the fact that she's pregnant means that Alodia is also a lot less resistant to our nagging to begin with. But I know how important all this is to her, and I'm pretty sure the baby is the only reason she isn't pushing herself way too hard.

But at last, we're told that they're ready to throw the switch. With all of us gathered together in the tower, Rochelle and Olivia do the honors. The Prism Gate hums to life. The pulsing sphere of energy that blooms between its arcs is familiar to me and the other Catalysts. We stepped through a sphere like that once and ended up outside the time bubble in the burning, bubbling red hell the rest of the world had become. What kind of world are we going to find on the other side of this particular gateway?

“So...we step through here, and that'll take us to Tahira?”

“No,” Alodia replies. “Not quite. I and whoever comes through with me will have to inject a dose of a serum made from liquid prism and Elyys'tel's sap. ...Michelle helped us develop that.”

“With some under-the-level help from Hazel,” Dax adds.

“The woman is a genius biologist,” Michelle remarks. “Remind me why she isn't part of your inner circle?”

“It seemed safer to bring as few people into the circle as possible. Fewer targets for the bad guys if you know what I mean,” Dax explains.

“My mother is the DA,” Kenji points out, “and we work directly with her. But we still haven't told her that I'm Talos.”

“That's...got to get awkward,” Diego remarks.

“Okay, okay! Back up!” I yelp. “Princess, go back to the part where you're gonna inject that stuff into your pregnant body?!”

“Jake, I'll be fine.”

“You can't know that!” I protest. “That's not a promise you can make me!”

“Yes, it is. I know I'm going to be fine.”

“How?! How do you know?! There hasn't been enough time to test it to a point where side effects can be ruled out.” I take her face in my hands, gently but firmly forcing her to look at me. “Alodia, look me in the eye and tell me there's no risk.”

She is quiet for a moment. Finally, she sighs. “There is a risk,” she admits. “There would always have been a risk. There will always be a risk. ...But I trust Vaanu. I trust the visions I've been given by him, and by the Prism Crystal. And those visions tell me that I'll be fine.”

There's not going to be any arguing with her on this, I can tell. Truthfully, I don't want to argue. I want to bring home the hero who sacrificed herself for Northbridge. Alodia's cousin. Rochelle's daughter. Dax, Poppy, Grayson, Kenji, and Eva's friend. But dammit, why's it always got to fall on Alodia's shoulders? I press my forehead to hers.

“You ain't going alone. I'm gonna be right there with you.”

She had to know I was going to say that, but she doesn't call me on it, doesn't tease. She just says, “Thank you.” Goddammit, she's scared. She's putting on her fearless face, but she's terrified.

“I'm going with you, too,” Diego declares, unsurprisingly. Alodia pulls back, passing a glance to Varyyn.

“Actually, Diego...you may want to pause a moment before you decide that.”

“What? Why?”

“Because, my darling,” Varyyn says, coming up behind his husband and cinching his arms around his waist. “...I must remain behind. The idea is that my psychic connection to Alodia will act as a tether, a line that she can follow back to our reality.”

“Oh...and...you don't think I should go with her...?”

Varyyn nuzzles Diego's neck, rocking him a little. “I believe the decision should be yours. I will not tell you not to go when it is your best friend putting herself at risk. ...But I will worry, my love.”

“I don't want to make you worry,” he admits. “...But...I can't let Allie go saving the day without her sidekick. Besides, if you're supposed to be her psychic anchor, she might really need me there. When we needed you to turn the Lernaean Gate back on, she needed my help to boost the psychic signal.”

“That's true,” Alodia confirms. “I was kinda stuck on the edges of your consciousness until Diego helped me out. I may have a better chance of making it back if he's with me.”

“Okay, we need to decide absolutely who's going,” Michelle declares, “Because we have a limited number of doses here.”

“How many?”

“Eight. And there are four spoken for.”

“Four?”

“I'm taking one, too. No way you're going into this pregnant without a medic.”

“Okay, so we got room for four more on this adventure. Who else is in?”

“I am,” Mike and Sean chime in at the same time, which surprises no one.

“So am I,” Estela adds.

“That leaves one more spot open.” I glance at Craig, expecting him to jump in to back up his friend. I think he's actually planning to do that, but before he can speak, Grayson cuts in.

“I'll go.” He looks at Alodia. “...You said that Tahira is lost and wandering. ...Doesn't it make sense to send at least one person she knows and trusts?”

“...You're right. It does.”

“But why does it get to be Grayson?” Kenji grumbles.

“Look, I've known Tahira since college, and--”

“So have I!” Poppy protests. “She's my best friend!”

“Shouldn't it be me or Eva?” Kenji asks. “You know, the ones with the superpowers?”

“...Vaanu's homeworld is dead,” Alodia replies. “I'm not expecting there to be enemies.”

“...Except possibly my father,” Grayson murmurs. “It's likely he was taken to the same place Tahira was.”

That silences everyone for a moment. I think Grayson has effectively killed any protests Tahira's other friends might have about him being the one to come with us. And given our experiences, it's pretty easy for the Catalysts to sympathize with daddy issues, especially those of the “my daddy is a supervillain” variety.

“All right,” Michelle says. “If we're all decided, everyone who's coming with grab a tourniquet. I hope you're all hydrated, because I have to find your veins and we don't have a lot of room for error here. Alodia, you're first since you're kind of essential to this whole venture.”

I help Alodia secure the tourniquet on her upper arm. Something occurs to me and I frown, looking up at Sean.

“Hey, Cap, you sure you wanna do this? I know they drug test y'all in the NFL, and I don't know if we've ever figured out if Elyys'tel's sap turns up in your piss.”

“That is a fair point,” Michelle agrees. “We haven't really tested that so much. Maybe you should stay behind. Give your place to Kenji or Eva.”

“...But...” Sean's face crumples a little as he looks at Michelle, and I feel a twinge of guilt. I may have had a valid point, but it strikes me that I've just suggested he let his fiancee go through the gate without him. Michelle clearly picks up what he's putting down, too, because she reaches out to stroke his cheek.

“Hey now, don't give me that look. I'll be back before you know it.”

“Of course she will,” Eva says, stepping up to clap him on the shoulder. “I'll look after her as if she were my own.”

She winks at Michelle, which makes Sean scowl slightly. “...Your own what, exactly?”

“My own fiancee, of course,” Eva purrs. “Unless you're afraid I'll steal her from you.”

Alodia claps a hand over her mouth, but not before I hear a snicker escape her. I smirk. So does Sean, actually.

“Nah. That doesn't concern me. I got over that a long time ago.” He sighs, pulling Michelle in for a deep kiss. “You just be safe without me, okay?”

“I will. But you have to let me go now, sweetie. I'm the one who has to inject everyone.”

Sean reluctantly lets her go. She manages to administer eight doses, including one to herself, without incident.

“Okay, so it should hit in about ten minutes,” she says, pulling off her tourniquet and flexing her arm. “This has been minimally tested--”

“I was the guinea pig!” Raj announces proudly. “I think I'm doing fine.”

“Yes, thank you, Raj. Anyway, the liquid prism portion of the serum should keep us more solid to each other than when we drank the sap alone, but we're still going to look ghost-like to everyone else, so nobody freak out. Rochelle, will you turn on the Prism Gate?”

Rochelle throws the switch and the Prism Gate hums to life.

“Once we've shifted,” Alodia continues with Michelle's explanation, “we'll pass through the Gate.”

“And...we're sure we'll end up in the right place?”

“The coordinates to Vaanu's home planet were still in my mind from the time I was merged with him. Coming into contact with the Prism Crystal seems to have brought them to the surface.” Alodia's gaze shifts, growing distant. “...His world is still dead. ...We were alone on a dead planet...just ghosts left there...”

I take her hand, lacing my fingers through hers. I let my other hand stroke the back of her head. She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.

“...We'll shift back when I touch the Prism Crystal again. At least, that's how it's been working. It has to be me to touch it.”

With nothing else to do but wait, Sean sits beside Michelle and pulls her into his arms. She leans against him, closing her eyes. Varyyn already has Diego clasped firmly to his chest.

“So...you've tried this stuff before?” Grayson asks, sounding a little nervous.

“Not strictly this stuff,” Alodia clarifies. “But we all once drank the sap of Elyys'tel. Well, all of us except Varyyn, Mike, and Quinn. Quinn was sick, Varyyn was watching over her, and we hadn't found Mike yet.”

“This stuff isn't exactly like the sap on it's own,” Raj explains. “That stuff put us right between realities and gave us time control powers like Eva has. Also, we could see and hear people from the past, but they couldn't see or hear us, and we couldn't see or here anyone from our own time. With this stuff, I went all ghosty, and I could sort of see other people, but not as clearly as we saw the Three Tribes' War. ...I could see Michelle and everyone a lot clearer. I could still sort of affect time, though.”

“In short...this is going to be a new experience for everyone.”

“Uh...speaking of going ghosty, you guys are starting to get fuzzy,” Zahra points out. As she says that, I realize that the kaleidoscope vision is starting to creep in. “Uh, Michelle and Diego might wanna let go of their respective boy toys now...”

“She's right,” Dax says. “I know you guys were able to pass through each other when you drank the pure sap, but I don't want to find out what might happen if you try to pass through people who haven't been dosed.”

“Nor do I,” Michelle concedes, reluctantly pulling away. “If I somehow bruise all of my fiance's internal organs, I won't be able to concentrate on anything.”

Varyyn gives Diego a lingering kiss. “Come back safely, my darling.”

“You know I can't stay away from you for long,” Diego murmurs back before hesitantly stepping back.

Alodia's grip on my hand tightens. “...Are you with me?”

“'Til the end of forever, Princess.”

“Don't you dare leave my side.”

“Not for anything.”

Alodia and everyone else who took the serum is starting to look brighter. Their colors are more vibrant. Meanwhile all the others are starting to look like photo negatives.

“I think it's ready,” Alodia murmurs, a quiver in her voice. “...I want you guys to know that I love you all, and--”

“Yeah, I'm cutting you off right there, Alodia,” Zahra says firmly. “Last time you started talking like that, you disappeared. And if you disappear again, I'm finding a way to bring you back just to smack you.”

Alodia laughs. “Okay, fair enough. ...I think I have to go through first. Everyone who's going through link up behind me.”

I hold my free hand out to Mike. He takes it and reaches for Diego. One by one, the eight of us join hands, Eva and Grayson on the end. Alodia guides us toward the Prism Gate.

“Whatever you do, nobody let go.”

Before anyone can answer, she rushes toward the Gate, pulling sharply on my arm, tugging us all behind her. In the next moment, I'm passing through the Prism Gate.

 

Eva

 

The journey is nothing like what I was expecting. I am not sure exactly what I was expecting, since I have never been through an energy gate before, but it certainly wasn't this. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we're going to find Tahira, whose disappearance has caused so much devestation, but I suppose I expected the journey to be much less...pleasant. But save for an electric buzzing sensation on my skin, which I admit is unnerving, it's all bright light and warmth. Until we actually land on solid ground again and I open my eyes to the barren world around me. The rocky ground under my feet is red and dusty, the sky is a strange shade of pinkish purple, and two moons gleam fuscia above us. Crystals sprout from the ground like stalagmites made of rock candy. The air appears breathable, but it's just slightly too warm. I look out over the sprawling landscape, jagged with cliffs.

“...What...where...?”

“We're here. Vaanu's homeworld.” Alodia looks around at the rest of us. “Is everyone okay?”

“I think we're all accounted for,” Diego replies. “Any chance you can reach Varyyn? Let him know we're here? I'd hate to have him worrying...”

Alodia closes her eyes for a moment. “...I can almost reach him. Give me a boost?” Diego takes her hands, closing his eyes. After another moment, Alodia nods. “I can reach him. ...He knows we made it here.”

Diego exhales with relief, letting go of her hands. “Good.”

“So...how do we find Tahira in this place?” I look pointedly at Alodia. She seems to be the expert here. The psychic one with the answers. She looks placidly back at me.

“Give me a moment. ...I think the crystals recognize me...” She frowns, turning toward one of the giant pillars sprouting from the barren ground. “...Yes...I'm Vaanu's daughter. I'm looking for my cousin. ...Do you know who I am...?”

From the crystal pillar, there comes a reply, an almost imperceptible flicker. Alodia gasps, a hand flying to her mouth.

“What? What is it?”

“It's...her parents. ...My aunt and uncle.” She laughs, and the sound is slightly giddy. “...I've got them on both sides of the family now...”

“Her parents are...in the crystals?” Grayson asks uncertainly.

“Not...exactly.” Alodia looks up at the crystals again. “Could you...manifest for my friends? Take a shape they could recognize?”

For a moment, nothing happens. Then, two bright lights flicker to life in the air in front of us, slowly growing and taking shape until we're faced with two transluscent, shimmering, and vaguely human-shaped apparitions, one that looks female, and one that looks male. They don't have faces, but the places where their eyes should be turn towards us.

“...It is...um...nice to meet you?” I clear my throat. “I'm Eva. Do...you have names?”

“Her mother is Chyyaus. Her father is Vaelphis.”

“Those names sound...almost Vaanti,” Diego remarks.

“The language of the Vaanti is a blend of various languages,” Alodia murmurs. “There's actually more than a little English influence if you look for it. After all, English was the native tongue of Eugene Rosencraft and Flora Sullivan. But yes, I think Vaanu's native language was another heavy influence.”

I feel a frown tightening my features. I can hear something soft and musical, like voices singing in whispers. There are words, too, but I can't make them out.

“...Does anyone else hear that?”

“Hear what?” Mike asks.

“The voices. Singing.”

Alodia blinks at me. “You can hear them?”

“Of course I can. I mean, I can't understand what they're saying, but...”

Jake pauses, tipping his head. “...Come to think of it...I do sorta hear something. I mean, it sounds like...wind...or like blowing across the top of a bottle...”

“Yeah, I'm kinda hearing it too,” Michelle agrees.

“So am I,” Diego adds.

“Is it weird that I don't hear anything?” Grayson asks.

“If so, then we're both weird,” Mike quips.

“So...all the Catalysts hear it,” Estela muses. “And Eva. But Eva and Alodia can hear voices...?”

Their voices,” Alodia says. “Chyyaus and Vaelphis. But...you can't understand what they're saying...?”

“I think that much is all on you, Princess.”

“Hmm...interesting.” She turns to the two figures. “Can you help us find your daughter? ...We're here to bring her home.” The man-shaped figure reaches out to touch her cheek, and the singing intensifies for a moment. “...I'm sorry. I know...But it's her home. And mine. We've both fought hard for it. We have families there who love us as much as you and my father do.” The ghostly hand drops from her face as Vaelphis nods. Alodia's eyes widen. “...Wh-what?”

“What? What are they saying?” Grayson asks anxiously.

“It's okay. They're going to help us. But they say they have some things that belong to me.”

“Oh. Well...where are these things?”

Chyyaus lifts her hand, curling her wrist in a beckoning gesture. She and Vaelphis begin to drift slowly across the rust-colored plain, stirring the dust as they glide. Alodia moves to follow them, which feels like permission for the rest of us to do the same. For awhile, we follow them in silence. Then Chyyaus and Vaelphis drift back to flank Alodia. Each places a transluscent hand on her shoulder, a tender, familial gesture. They guide her forward, and finally she stops, pointing.

“...There...” she murmurs, squinting. “There's a...crate...”

“Oh! You're right! It's a little buried, but it's there...”

Alodia breaks into a run, Jake and Diego close behind her. “Woah! Hey, Princess! Careful, okay? We don't know what's in there.”

“You think whatever it is will bite me?” she asks wryly.

“I don't know. I don't know what's in there.”

“My instincts say not to open it,” Diego declares. “They may be your family, Allie, but they've got a real 'ancient gods' vibe going on. My concern is that whatever's in there is gonna be a double-edged sword.”

Alodia is already on her knees beside the crate, brushing red dust off the lid. “If the island taught me anything, it's that I can't afford to ignore something just because I'm afraid of it. Every bit of information I can get is essential.” She turns back to Diego, grinning. “Come on, sidekick. Give me a hand here.”

Diego rolls his eyes, but he grins back and kneels beside her. “Oh, fine. But if whatever's in there does bite, I'm blaming you.”

“Totally fair.”

They push at the lid, and it rises with a creak. When nothing jumps out to attack them, the rest of us cluster curiously around them. From my position, I can see something gleaming gold. Alodia gasps.

“Oh my god! It's my armor!”

“Your what?”

“The armor of Andromeda! I first found it on the Hartfeld rooftop when we went through the Lernaean Gate. But...I thought it was lost...”

“There's more,” Estela murmurs. Her eyes widen slightly. “Wait...Alodia, isn't that...?”

“...Yeah,” Alodia's expression is grim as she gingerly holds up a piece of a red garment. “...It's the Endless' space suit. I don't know how it—Ahh!“ She cuts herself off with a shriek, dropping the fabric and recoiling as if she spotted a cockroach crawling on it. She claps both hands to her mouth, her breath coming out in quick, shallow puffs.

“Princess!” Jake pulls her into his arms. “What is it? What's wrong?”

“Oh, god...” Diego whispers. “I think I know.”

He slowly draws out a small object that gleams golden under the fuschia moonlight. It looks like...a statue. No. Not just a statue.

“It's...one of those Catalyst idols. Like the one I stole from the Gala.”

“One you stole?” Grayson echoes, raising an eyebrow. I roll my eyes, smirking.

“Don't act so surprised, O Sainted Heir of Prescott,” I scoff. “Surely even you recognized my signature in my slow-motion fields.”

“Look, it isn't just any Catalyst idol!” Diego says irritably. He sighs, showing it to me. It depicts a woman posed with her arms and legs crossed, chains spiraling her naked body like a DNA double-helix. “...It's her idol.”

Alodia whimpers, turning her face into Jake's chest. Diego shoves the idol back into the crate. Michelle kneels beside Jake and places a gentle hand on Alodia's back.

“Easy there, Alodia. Deep breaths. It's okay.”

Grayson frowns. “You...said the idols gave her visions, to guide her to the Threshold.”

“Not just any visions,” Michelle says sadly. “...Every time she touched an idol, she watched the Catalyst it represented die. Visions of failed timelines.”

“And her own idol? Did she see her own death?”

“...Worse,” Alodia whispers, her voice muffled. She's trembling like a leaf.

“...She saw herself at the Threshold,” Jake says softly, stroking her hair. “...Burying the rest of us.”

“But we're okay,” Michelle says soothingly. “We're all okay. You saved us all, Alodia.”

“Don't let me touch it,” Alodia begs. “I don't want to see it again...please...”

“It's okay, Princess. You don't have to touch it.”

“...Unfortunately...I think she might,” Estela says grimly.

“What?!”

“...She just said it herself. We can't afford to ignore something important just because we're afraid of it. Any bit of information we can get is essential. ...The Andromeda armor and the Endless' suit are in this crate. It feels like there's a reason the Andromeda idol is here, too.”

Diego groans. “Okay, okay. But...maybe later? Maybe we concentrate on finding Tahira before forcing Allie to see all of our graves?”

“Well, it isn't that I was going to force her!” Estela retorts indignantly. “...Alodia, what do you think we should do now?”

“Hey, give her a minute!” Jake snaps. “She's had a shock!”

“Jake, I'm okay. I'm okay.” Alodia sits up slowly. “I'm gonna put the armor on. The crate will be pretty heavy if I don't, and I don't know how long we're gonna need to carry it. I...will deal with the Andromeda idol later. After we get Tahira back.”

I can't help but notice how carefully Alodia avoids touching the small amber statue as she draws out the pieces of armor and secures them to her body. Of course, I also can't help but notice how elegant and intimidating she looks clad in gleaming amber.

“Mmm. Well, you don't look much like Tahira, but you certainly can wear a heroic costume as well as she does. Does yours come with a mask?”

Alodia grins. “I used to have a mask. A true Vaanti warrior mask. But...I don't know what happened to it...”

“Um...I do...” Diego says softly. He's reaching into the chest again, and withdraws a gold-colored full-face mask with elegant scalloped edges. Alodia takes it, her eyes wide.

“...What the hell...?” She scowls, looking at the two figures still hovering silently behind us. “Where did you get all this stuff?”

I cannot tell which one is singing when the response comes. Alodia's expression doesn't alter much.

“Um...what did they say?”

“...Keepsakes. From my father. From...when we were together.” She shakes her head hard. “Never mind. Just...where is Tahira?”

Tahira's parents each raise their hands, pointing across the landscape. I don't know if we've traveled, or if we're all just incredibly unobservant, because there is suddenly a crystal altar right there in front of us, sprouting from the dust. And stretched out on top of it, hands folded placidly over her belly...

“Tahira!” Grayson and I cry out together, rushing to her side.

She's breathing. She looks like she's sleeping. Her expression is peaceful, her dark hair spread around her head like a silky black halo. She's still in her supersuit, but it's been powered down, and her mask has been removed, tucked lovingly under her folded hands. Grayson takes her hand between his palms, bringing it up to kiss her knuckles. Something just ahead of us catches my eye.

“Everyone, look!”

There is a second crystal altar, just a few yards ahead of us, and a second figure stretched out on top. Grayson goes pale, his breath catching in his throat.

“...Dad?”

 

 

Chapter Text

Dax

I don't like not being able to monitor my companions on their mission. But my tech can't exactly reach into other realities, and that makes me feel blind and deaf. Luckily, someone else on our side is less impaired.

“So...they're safe?” I ask uncertainly.

Varyyn nods. “Her voice is faint, but I can still hear Alodia. I think Diego must be helping her. She says that everyone has made it safely.”

“...As long as they make it back safely, too,” Sean murmurs. Varyyn reaches over to put a hand on Sean's shoulder.

“I know it is difficult for you, being separated from the one you love.”

“Are you suggesting that it isn't difficult for you?” Sean asks wryly.

“Not in the least. ...But...I have had more time to prepare for a situation like this.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

Varyyn gestures ruefully at his arms and legs. “Looking like this, I am usually safe enough from prying eyes just being out and about with Diego. Most people assume I am in costume and they don't pay much attention. But that excuse does not hold up when I am subjected to greater scrutiny. ...I must admit that I've spent a long time worrying about what might happen if Diego were to become ill or injured badly enough to need a hospital. ...Trying to accept the idea that I would not be able to sit beside him...”

“...That's...a horrifying thought...” I mumble around a sudden heaviness in my chest. I reach for Poppy's hand. She takes mine and squeezes it.

“Couldn't you use make-up or something?”

“I have considered that. It is probably my best hope. But not especially practical. It would take time to apply, it risks rubbing off...I would do it to be able to be beside my beloved if he needed me. But it would still mean seeing that someone else could be there immediately if he needed help. It is quite a relief to me to have Alodia back, and to be living under the same roof as she.”

“Yeah,” Raj agrees. “You know if Diego were ever in trouble, she'd keep an eye on him until you could get there.”

“The two of them are close,” Rochelle observes. Varyyn nods.

“Like brother and sister.”

“Closer, really,” Sean says. “They were all each other had for years.”

“They're like soulmates in a non-romantic way,” Zahra adds. “Platonic soulmates.”

“Is that a thing?” Craig asks.

“Anam cara,” Quinn murmurs.

“What's that.”

“It's Irish. I went through a big phase when I was a teenager studying Irish myth, history, and culture. Anyway, the phrase means 'soul friend'. It was an old Irish belief that the soul hovered around the body like a halo, and sometimes when two people met, their souls would flow together and merge. If I remember correctly, the phrase could be used either romatically or platonically...”

“Soul friend...” Varyyn repeats thoughtfully. “I like that term.”

“Very fitting,” Aleister agrees.

Silence settles over us. I look back at my monitors. Not that there's any reason at all for me to look at them. But I hate feeling so helpless.

“Varyyn? Are they still okay?”

Varyyn is quiet for a moment. “Her presence is faint, most likely because she is concentrating on Tahira. But she is still there. And if there were any trouble, she would surely let me know.”

 

Michelle

Eva eases herself onto the crystal altar, cradling Tahira's head on her lap while Grayson moves anxiously between her and his father.

“Are they all right?” he asks. “Are they hurt?”

“I...don't think so...” I frown, looking them over and finding no obvious signs of injury. “But if they were just sleeping, they would have woken up by now.”

“They are sleeping,” Alodia murmurs. “They're dreaming between realities. I think...they're being preserved...”

“Preserved for what?” Eva asks warily. Alodia shakes her head.

“Not for any particular purpose. I think Tahira's parents are...protecting them. Holding them in stasis like Rourke was. Like the guests at The Celestial.”

“That...would make sense,” I concede slowly. “This planet is basically dead. No sources of food, no water...this might be the only way either Tahira or Prescott could have survived this long.”

“So...how do we wake them up?”

“Leave that to me,” Alodia replies. She sits down on the edge of the altar where Tahira sleeps and stretches out a hand to touch her cousin's forehead.

“You gonna try mind-talking?” Jake asks, raising an eyebrow.

“I'm still anlashokk. There's no reason I shouldn't be able to reach her.”

 

Tahira

 

The fuschia-tinted world around me comes with a sense of deja-vu. I was disoriented at first, but now I'm almost certain I know where I am. It's the crystals rising out of the landscape that make it click, reminding me of how Mom described the matter that had come through the Prism Gate before me. Prism-based matter.

“I...don't think we're on Earth,” I murmur.

“Agreed,” Marci chirps in my ear. “My global-positioning system doesn't recognize this place. Actually, it can't detect any satellites in range at all. And I have a fairly wide range. Tahira, I think something may be wrong with my vital scan function.”

“Your what?”

“I have a function that monitors your vital signs. Heartrate, sinus rhythm, brain waves, that sort of thing. But something appears to be amiss, because I just woke you up, but according to my brainwave scan, you're still asleep.”

I sigh. “Right now, Marci, I think that's the least of our concerns.”

What concerns would you place at highest priority?”

“Well, for starters, figuring out where we are. ...I think I have a guess there.”

“Do enlighten me, please.”

“I think...this is the dimension where I was born.”

Oh, wonderful! ...What does that mean?”

“I don't know exactly. ...You heard what Silas Prescott said, right? Right before we...were consumed?”

“Don't you see, Tahira?” Silas Prescott's own voice sounds in my ear, tinny and distorted, muffled by the rush of air around him. “You're the key to all of this. The Prism Gate's energy wasn't strong enough to send me through to the other side, but with my Liquid Prism and your innate power, we can rip a hole in the very fabric of reality!”

I feel my face slacken with surprise. “Marci, were...were you recording him?”

“I felt it might be useful to be able to reference his words later.”

“But as far as we both knew, we were about to die!”

“Dax didn't program me to capitulate. As long as I am functional, I am programmed to assume I will be indefinitely functional. Therefore, even when death appears imminent, I assume that I will survive.”

I can't help grinning. “You clever, clever girl.”

“Thank you, Tahira,” Marci replies with what I swear is pride in her voice. “But Dax should at least have some credit for designing me this way.”

I feel my smile slipping. “I'll make sure he knows. ...If I ever see him again...”

Just for a moment, I let myself feel afraid, acknowledge the rising tide of panic in my gut. I let it bubble up my chest, into my throat, and then I breathe it out. I'm scared. I acknowledge that I'm scared. But I am not going to let it master me.

“Okay...so...we at least have some idea where we are. I think the next steps are first figuring out what happened to Prescott, and then...figuring out a way out of here.”

“I can help with both of those.”

The voice is new, an unfamiliar mezzo that sounds behind me. I whip around, hoping to cover the spasm of surprise that shoots through my musculature. A young woman is standing behind me, a lithe, pretty blonde with clear blue eyes, dressed in armor that gleams amber under the purple-pink moonlight. She spreads both her hands, showing her empty palms as she approaches me carefully.

“It's okay, Tahira. I'm here to help.”

I scowl, striking a defensive pose. “Who are you and how do you know my name?”

She stops moving toward me, keeping her hands up and her eyes on my face. “My name is Alodia. I'm your cousin.”

“My...what?”

“Your cousin. I'm the daughter of your father's brother. Your biological father.”

I let my stance relax just slightly. “...You look human.”

Her lips quirk upwards with amusement as she looks me up and down. “So do you. And unlike you, I'm actually half-human.”

“...What's...the other half? What...what am I?”

She frowns a little, her hands dropping slowly to her sides. “That's...a little difficult to explain. I don't actually know the name of their—our—race. I don't think there are many left, except in spirit. ...I don't know exactly what kind of physical form they took, either. ...Honestly, I know very little about where our parents came from.” She shifts awkwardly. “Listen...I think detailed explanations might be better over a hot cup of something at home, not here.”

“...Home?”

“On Earth.” She hazards another step in my direction. “Where we belong. ...Tahira, you and I have fought very hard for that world. We have families there. Besides...we can't survive on this dead world for long. The only reason you've survived here as long as you have is because your parents put you in stasis.”

“My...my parents?” I feel my heart lurch as another implication of her words sinks in. “How long have I been here?”

“About ten weeks have passed on Earth.”

“Ten! But...I only just woke up here twenty minutes ago! ...Didn't I?”

By my calculations, you came around eighteen minutes and thirty-four seconds ago,” Marci clarifies.

“You're not actually awake, though. You're...sort of dreaming.”

“But what about Marci? Marci's an AI. AI's don't dream.”

“Well...probably not. But, she may be connected to your mind somehow, based on the fact that I can hear her, too.”

“That might explain your unusual brainwaves,” Marci concedes.

I let my fighting stance drop entirely. ...I trust this woman. Strange as it may seem, I believe her. I believe every word. Still, something in me is hesitating. She sighs.

“Look...I know it sucks.”

“What sucks?”

“To be told you have to go back to Earth just when you recognize where you are. Just when you've landed on the world where you were born. ...I can introduce you to your parents, but you won't really have time to get to know them.”

Ahh. So that's where the hesitation came from. I had never really worried about my birth parents before. Not until Mom told me the truth about where I'd come from...

“Oh, god...” I feel sickness roiling through my midsection. Mom...I never forgave her...I didn't tell her before I left that I love her... And I've been gone for ten weeks... “I...I have to go home. Mom...”

“She's waiting for you. She knows you're alive. She's waiting for me to bring you home.”

I nod, feeling tears in my eyes. “Take me home then. Take me to my mom.”

She holds out a hand. “Take my hand and close your eyes. Then open them again, and wake up.”

“...It's just that simple?”

“You've got me guiding you. Just keep your hand in mine, and don't let it slip away. Keep hold of it as you open your eyes.”

I nod slowly, taking the offered hand. The moment I close my eyes, I start to feel her hand becoming less solid. I tighten my grip, willing myself to keep ahold of her, to fade as she fades so that neither of us will fade entirely. My head starts to swim, and I'm suddenly glad I have my eyes closed. I feel myself floating. Falling. Tilting backwards. It's a dizzy, weightless sort of feeling, nut still oddly terrifying, like falling in a dream. Except instead of an impact that goes through me like a lightning bolt, I simply find myself suddenly supine, feeling a little bit chilly. I flex my feet experimentally, but I don't let go of the hand in mine. And that's when I feel the pressure on my other hand.

“...Tahira?”

This voice is familiar. I gasp, my eyes flying open before I can stop them. Grayson Prescott is leaning over me, holding my free hand. And he's not the only familiar face.

“...Grayson...? ...Eva?” They smile down at me.

“Welcome back, hero,” Eva quips.

“Are you all right?” Grayson asks anxiously.

“I think so...” I sit up carefully glancing at the familiar and unfamiliar faces around me. “A little groggy. ...Wh-what are you doing here, Grayson? How did you...?”

“I know. I'm not supposed to know that you're Dragonness. ...Your mom told me though, when she learned that there was a way to bring you back.”

“Mom knows, too...?”

“She apparently figured it out a long time ago.”

My heart stirs with affection made strangely heavy with sorrow. “...Of course she did. How could she not have.”

“She would have come with us,” Eva says, “and Kenji and Poppy and Dax. But there were limited doses of the stuff that got us through the Gate, and the Catalysts claimed six doses for themselves.”

“...What's a Catalyst?” I ask lamely. It may be a logical question, but asking it makes me feel like I'm missing something obvious.

“I'm a Catalyst,” Alodia replies. “So are Jake, Diego, Michelle, and Estela.” She points to each figure as she names them. “There are twelve of us all together. You'll meet the others later.”

There is one figure she didn't name, a young man with an eyepatch. I nod to him. “And...who is this?”

“I'm Mike.” He smiles, holding out a hand for me to shake. “I'm not a Catalyst, just an associate of them.”

“And...behind you...” Alodia touches my shoulder gently, capturing my gaze when I turn toward her. She nods significantly over my shoulder. I turn to look and find two faceless ghostly figures standing behind me, one male and one female. Their voices come like a song that echoes in my mind and makes tears spring to my eyes.

Daughter...

“...Mom...” I choke on the word. “...Dad...”

“Chyyaus and Vaelphis,” Alodia clarifies softly. “...Your biological parents. My aunt and uncle.”

I swallow hard as my birth mother holds out her hand to me. I can't help but reach back. Almost to my surprise, her hand is solid to the touch, cool and soft.

“Oh god...” My voice is thick, cracking with unshed tears. “There's so much I want to say to you both...so many questions.”

“We know. But...perhaps it would be best if we let your cousin answer them.”

“I may not have all the answers she's looking for,” Alodia protests. “I don't understand everything myself...”

“You know more than you think,” my father replies. “And what you don't know, you will learn on your own when you are meant to learn it.”

Alodia snorts ruefully. “Hoo boy, does that sound familiar.”

“The Endless had her faults, of course.” My father sounds a little amused. A little indulgent. “But she was still...one of us.”

“...Tahira...” Grayson's voice is uncharacteristically small and meek as he interrupts our conversation. “...What are we going to do about my dad?”

For the first time, I glance over and see Silas Prescott stretched out on a crystal altar, just like the one I've just awakened on. He isn't moving, save for the gentle rise and fall of his chest. I swallow hard, shuddering as I remember the moment before the portal tore open, the madness in him, the frightening implications of his words.

“I...don't think it would be right to leave him behind here. But...” I trail off, hesitating a moment before I look over at my cousin. “Alodia, can you...find him? The way you found me?”

“I could try...”

“We...should be prepared for a battle when he comes around. Given his goal, he isn't likely to give up and come quietly...”

“What goal?” Grayson asks softly.

Before I can answer, my mother speaks up. “There is no need to wake him here. He is not in the same state that Tahira was. ...I fear his condition is beyond our help. He has poisoned himself with that wretched liquid.”
“But isn't that exactly the sort of thing we should be able to help with?” Alodia protests.

You can certainly help,” my mother agrees. “...I am sure you recall the night you rejoined your father.”

“Of course. That isn't exactly something that's easily forgotten.”

“What poisons Silas Prescott's body is made from your energy, as you were made from your father's. Take it back, as your father took you back. ...It...will not save him on its own. We have managed to hold his body in stasis, but much of it has been damaged internally. He will need to be healed by humans.”

“Tahira, what are they saying?” Grayson asks anxiously. “I...I can't understand what your parents are saying...”

I find his hand, taking it in both my own. “...It's the Liquid Prism. It's...poisoned him. Alodia can help draw it out of him...I think...but then we have to get him home to get him treated by doctors.”

“That one's a doctor,” Diego remarks, jerking his head at Michelle. “And she has more experience with time crystals than any other doctor in Northbridge.”

“I'm still just a resident,” Michelle cautions. “And I won't know the extent of the damage until I can at least get him to Iris.”

“We should get you all back to the portal before Alodia attempts to draw the toxins out. We can preserve him in stasis until then.”

I relay my father's suggestion to the others.

“How are we going to move him?” Diego wonders. “Not to mention the chest...”

“What chest?” I ask.

“A little treasure chest Alodia's dad left her,” Eva explains, nodding at the half-buried trunk a few yards away. “And as to carrying either Prescott or the trunk, I think you're forgetting that we have Dragonness to help us with that.”

“I'll carry Mr. Prescott,” I say. “Probably better to be careful with him. We don't know how much damage has been done.” I stand carefully as Grayson drifts towards his father's still form. Eva takes my arm. I accept the offered support without questioning it, until she leans in to whisper in my ear.

“Tahira, I know you and Grayson are together, but given everything, are you sure we should bring his father back with us?” She has the common decency to keep her voice low enough that Grayson can't hear, but I can't help scowling at her.

“We probably won't get another chance to save him. Are you really willing to leave him to die alone on an alien planet?”

She raises an eyebrow at me. “Do you really think so highly of me that you expect the good girl answer?”

I meet her gaze steadily. “If you are truly willing to leave Silas Prescott behind, go tell Grayson yourself.”

She purses her lips, rolling her eyes, but not before I see the flicker of alarm across her face. She doesn't answer. It's my turn to raise an eyebrow, which makes her sigh with irritation.

“Oh, stop smirking, hero,” she mutters, shoving me lightly. “Go grab the supervillain, then.”

I join Grayson at his father's side. He helps me get him into position, and then I easily hoist Silas Prescott onto my back. Estela goes to grab one handle of the trunk.

“Someone want to give me a hand here?” she calls. Alodia takes a step in Estela's direction, but Michelle grabs her arm.

“No way, Alodia. No heavy lifting in your condition.” I open my mouth to ask, but then Alodia puts a hand on her abdomen, and I don't need to. There's a small swell in her belly that I hadn't noticed before. And strangely enough, her gleaming armor seems to have been molded for it.

“I gotcha,” Mike offers, and moves to take the other end of the trunk.

For awhile, we proceed in silence, following my parents. Eventually I can't help speaking to them again.

“Mom...Dad...I almost don't want to ask, but...do you think I'll ever see you again?”

“It's nearly impossible to know what the future holds, daughter,” my father answers heavily. “I like to hope that we will.”

“A part of me wants to stay. To not go back yet.”

“It warms me to hear you say so. But this place is not your home. Not anymore. You girls have fought hard for the earth. It is where you both belong, not here on this dead world. That is why we sent you through the Gate. So that you might survive.”

I am quiet as the implications sink in. Survive...a dead world...

“There,” Alodia says, pointing to a shimmering pink orb of energy ahead of us. “There's the rift.”

My mother nods. “You must draw the toxin out of him now, Alodia. It will not harm you or your child. Take the energy back into yourself.”

“I understand.” She stretches out a hand toward the man on my back, laying her fingertips to his temple, and closes her eyes. There is silence for a long moment. Alodia breathes deliberately slow, as if she is trying to keep herself calm, or breathe through something painful. I can't turn my head far enough to make out her expression, so I'm not sure if she's anxious or in pain. After a few minutes, she steps back, letting her hand fall.

“Okay. I think that did it.”

“Then you must hurry back through the Gate,” my father says. “...All that is left for us is to tell you that we love you, daughter. And you, niece. We are so proud of you both. And we hope with everything that remains in us that we will meet again.”

I nod slowly. “...Goodbye, Mom and Dad. ...Thank you. For giving me to Rochelle. You didn't just save my life and give me the chance to grow up. You gave me to someone who loves me with every breath in her body. She was there for me through thick and thin, and I have been so fortunate to have her for my mother...” I trail off. I meant to reassure them that I've been happy and cared for, but somehow it feels callous if my last words to my birth parents end up being in praise of my adoptive mother. “...Even if we can't be together, I know you've both been looking out for me since the day I was born. You gave me to Rochelle when you couldn't care for me yourselves. You found me through the Prism Gate when I couldn't escape Prescott alone. And you've helped my cousin find me and bring me home. I'll never doubt that you love me. Or that I love you both.”

They both drift forward to embrace me. Their transluscent forms are cool to the touch, but there is warmth in the gesture that eases the chill.

“There is no more time for hesitation,” my mother says gently. “We must let you both go now.”

“Come on,” Alodia calls, addressing the whole group. “Everyone together. Let's go home.”

I reluctantly pull away from my parents. Then, before I can change my mind, I press in with the others and rush through the Gate.

The journey home to Northbridge is much like the one that brought me to my birthplace: a quick, disorienting whirlwind of weightlessness and bright light. I find myself inside the clocktower. Then, I am swarmed by bodies and voices. Several pairs of hands take Silas Prescott off my back as Poppy throws her arms around me.

“Tahira! Oh my god! Thank goodness you're safe!”

“Iris! I need a medical scan on him, and one on Alodia.”

“I'm fine, Michelle.”

“I'm not going to believe that until I hear it from Iris.”

“Woah! Alodia, where did you find your armor?!”

“The armor isn't the only thing we found.”

Then, amongst the voices, one makes itself heard above the others.

“Tahira...?” My mother's voice trembles with emotion. “My baby girl...is it really you...?”

“Mom...” I squirm out of Poppy's embrace, push past Kenji and Dax, and throw myself into my mother's waiting arms. I become aware of the knot of tears that has been slowly tightening in my chest since I came awake on the crystal altar. In Rochelle Rogers' arms, my head pressed into my mother's chest, breathing in the familiar scent of the woman who raised me, the knot dissolves, and I soak her shirt with my tears. Not that she notices.

“Oh, baby...sweetie...my baby girl...”

“Mom...” I whimper. Somehow, that little word doesn't feel like enough right now. I don't even care who can hear me. “...Mommy...mommy, I'm so sorry...”

“No, sweetie, no...you don't need to be sorry. I just...I never thought I would see you again....and here you are! Here you are in my arms, my baby...”

“Tahira...” Grayson's voice makes me look up. His face is pale. He looks as helpless and frightened as a little boy. “...My dad...I...I have to take him to a hospital...”

Reality asserts itself over me once more. Silas Prescott needs a doctor's care. But what's going to happen when he suddenly shows up at the hospital after ten weeks missing? He's almost certainly a wanted man after nearly destroying Northbridge. I have no doubt people were killed in his rampage.

“...I should be the one to take him,” I declare reluctantly. “We disappeared together. It will be easier if I just offer an explanation as to where we've been.”

“Ahh...about that...” Jake pipes up nervously. “When you explain where you've been and how you got back, could you leave us and Alodia out of it? We can explain everything later, but for now, suffice to say that we need to keep her under the radar of a certain dangerous someone...”

“That's all the explanation I need for now.” I step away from my mother to put on my mask and gather Prescott's unconscious body into my arms again. I make my way toward the balcony and prepare to take flight.

“Wait!" My mom's voice makes me pause and turn back. She holds my gaze, her eyes wide and fearful. "When you've done that. When you've taken Silas to the hospital...will you come home? Will you come home to me?”

It's all I can do not to burst into tears again. I give her a watery smile. “Always, Mom. Always.” 

I turn back and look down at the city I was ready to die to protect. I step off the balcony and into the arms of the sky, letting the air support me as I take off again, a single thought running through my head on a loop: I'm home.

 

 

Chapter Text

Jake

A silence falls over us as we watch Tahira take off into the moonlit sky with Silas Prescott's limp body in her arms. Grayson lingers on the balcony until she vanishes from sight, and stays there a moment or two more. Diego and Varyyn immediately start trying to eat each other's faces. Michelle went immediately into doctor-mode, but now that Tahira's taken off and Iris has assured her that neither Alodia nor the baby have suffered any ill effects from our adventures, she remembers that she has a fiance who was waiting for her, and more face-eating commences. For my part, I'm a little classier about it, and delicately taste my wife's mouth while my hand carresses the swell of her belly. Honestly, what I'm feeling now is a little too much to be expressed with carnal kissing, but I need to be close to her. I need to taste her and touch her, but gently.

We did it. We got her cousin home, and she's still with me. She and the baby are still with me. I'm sure sometime in bed tonight I'm gonna start trembling and possibly crying over the worst-case scenarios that aren't going to come true anymore, but right now I'm too relieved to think about them.

“How are you feeling?” I ask her. “I wouldn't be surprised if you told me that trip took it outta ya.”

“It did,” she admits. “I'm exhausted. And hungry. ...Hey, Raj?”

Raj looks up from where he's on his knees, poking through the chest with Craig and Zahra. “Yeah?”

“Baby Peanut is demanding that hangover cure you made us on the island. Think you can help me out?”

He grins, getting to his feet. “Baby Peanut's wish is my command. Come on, I'll give you guys a ride back. We can make a stop at the grocery store on the way.”

“Let me just take off my armor.”

I help her remove the polished amber pieces, and place them carefully back in the trunk. For a moment, she hesitates beside the trunk, staring down at it's contents. I wind my arms around her waist from behind, lacing my fingers together over her abdomen.

“Later,” I murmur into the curve of her neck. “Worry about that later. Just be with me now.”

“...Yeah...” She exhales slowly, nodding. “Yeah. Later.”

 

Tahira

 

The air is brisk and chilly, especially at this altitude. It shouldn't surprise me, I guess. If I've been gone ten weeks, the rest of the world must be well into October by now. I confess that the silence gets to me pretty quickly.

“Marci? Are you still with me?”

“Of course, Tahira. You have not deactivated me.”

I chuckle. “Fair enough. You've been awfully quiet since my cousin found me.”

“You had the situation under control. I didn't think there was anything I could say that would have been very helpful.”

“I suppose that's fair. But I'm glad to know you're still with me. I enjoy your company, you know.”

“Why thank you, Tahira. I enjoy your company as well.”

The hospital is coming into view beneath me. As I arc toward it, descending out of the sky, I start to hear people shouting. No doubt news crews will be on the scene in minutes. The moment my feet touch ground, I'm swarmed. I let the voices and questions wash over me as I shout for a doctor. Plenty of them swarm me, too. It's only when they've taken Silas Prescott from me that I turn toward the crowd spewing questions at me, some anxious, some excited, some stunned. I don't hear their individual questions, but I don't need to. I project my voice into the crowd.

“It's me, everyone. It's Dragonness. I'm home. Where I have been is not important, nor is it important how I got back. In the days to come, I swear that I will formally answer all your questions. For now, all you need to know is that I thought that I was using my last act in life to protect Northbridge. But it was not my last act. Nothing matters more to me than continuing to protect Northbridge as I did before. And now I must be on my way.”

Before anyone can react, I take flight again, shooting straight up into the sky, climbing to an altitude where I hopefully blend into the night.

“How do you think that went, Marci?”

“Since you left Silas Prescott in capable medical hands and successfully addressed the crowds, I would say that your mission was a success.”

“Excellent. I'm going to give you a chance to rest for awhile, okay? I'm going to change clothes back at my apartment, then I'm going to my mom's. I'll bring my suit with me, of course. In case Dragonness is needed.”

“That sounds like a sensible plan, Tahira. You know where to find me if you need me.”

* * *

I left the windows unlocked at my apartment the day I fought Silas Prescott. Luckily, no one thought to lock them again in ten weeks, and I can easily slip in without breaking anything. I am surprised to find that all my stuff is pretty much untouched. I would have thought the landlord would be pretty eager to lease the space again. But maybe my mom or Dax or Poppy or Grayson covered for me. I don't know, and at the moment, I don't much care. I slip inside, change clothes, and pack a bag with a few days' worth of clothes and my supersuit. A civilian once more, I make the journey to my mom's apartment the old-fashioned way: on foot.

Mom must have been waiting by the door for me, because the moment I press the buzzer, she responds, and the door into the building unlocks. She's in the hallway when I get up to her floor, hovering eagerly by the open door.

“Come in, darling. Come in. I'll make tea.”

I follow her inside. But as soon as the door has closed, I drop my bag and throw my arms around her. She squeaks in surprise, but she doesn't hesitate to hold me back. For a long moment, we're silent, just holding each other.

“...Mom...” I whimper. “...Mommy...”

“It's been a long time since you called me that,” she murmurs, tightening her grip just a little.

“I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry I ran out on you the last time I was here...I'm so...I'm so, so sorry I ever went into that battle without telling you that I love you...”

I have no doubt that my mother wants to be strong for me right now, because she always wants to be strong for me. Of course she does. She's the mom. She always wants to put me first. ...But damned if she doesn't entirely deserve to break down and let everything out, and a part of me is glad that my words push her over the edge. Now it's her face pressed into my shoulder while she sobs with abandon. I gently lead her over to the couch. I snuggle up in her arms, the way I did one morning when I was thirteen and scared to go to middle school because adolescent drama had turned the one-story building into a prison in my mind. But now I'm twenty-five, and it's my mother weeping while she clings to me.

“I thought I'd lost you,” she finally manages to croak. “I thought I would never see you again...”

“I thought you'd lost me, too...” I admit. “But I'm here now, Mommy. I'm here, and I love you and I'm so sorry if you ever thought otherwise...”

“It doesn't matter now, sweetheart. What matters is that you're right. You're here now. You're back. Everything's going to be all right.”

“I...met my birth parents...” I confess softly. My mother is silent for a moment.

“You did...”

“Or...what's left of them. Maybe. They sent me through the Prism Gate to save my life when I was a baby.”

“I know. Alodia explained that much to me.”

I squirm as guilt snakes through my gut. “...I thanked them for sending me to you.”

“...I wish I could have thanked them for sending you to me, too. You're the best thing that ever happened to me, Tahira. My dream come true. ...I am so proud of what you've become.”

“Do you mean that?”

“Of course. You're a hero, baby.”

“...So they say. I just kinda felt like gaining the powers of flight and super-strength meant I had to do something good with them.”

“And that makes me even prouder. To know that I've raised the kind of woman who is motivated to use her gifts for the betterment of the world.”

“That's all your handiwork, Mom,” I agree. “...But...tonight, I don't want to be Dragonness. Just for tonight, I want to be Tahira Rogers. Your little girl.”

“I can absolutely agree to that.”

 

Grayson

 

I want to go straight to the hospital. I want to be there with my father. I want to be beside him when he wakes up. I want to tell him...ask him...Christ, I don't even know what. So much. How could he do something so terrible? What the hell was he trying to accomplish? I want answers. I want to beg him not to die, now that I got him back...

I can't go straight to the hospital. I have to let Tahira take him, wait for the hospital staff to call me. Tell me he's there. So while everyone else drifts out of the clocktower and heads home, I linger with Eva, Kenji, Dax, and Poppy. I sit on the couch, staring at my phone, willing it to light up with a call from Northbridge General Hospital.

“So...what happens now?” Eva breaks the silence with her question.

“What do you mean?”

“Well...Dragonness is back now, and so is Silas Prescott...”

“My father is likely going straight to prison as soon as he is healthy,” I point out bitterly. “I don't think he's going to pose much threat anymore, especially now that I'm in charge of Prescott Industries.”

“And Aleister and Estela are running Rourke International while their father rots in a hospital for the criminally insane. That doesn't stop them from being afraid of him.”

That makes me pause. She's right. Everett Rourke and my father are smart, powerful men. They were friends once. And they essentially sought to harness the same power in different forms. My dad may end up in a home for the criminally insane, too. Perhaps even the same one his old friend was sent to. ...And now Tahira, whose power my dad sought to exploit, has met Alodia, the living source of that power. The Endless even warned the Catalysts not to get complacent, not to stop being wary of Rourke.

Tahira Rogers and Alodia Chandler. Silas Prescott and Everett Rourke. Two sources of power, and two men with power and means who tried to exploit them. The more I think about it, the more I worry.

“You're right,” I concede. “Whatever happens to my dad now, we can't just assume it's over. Not now that Tahira and Alodia have met.”

“But as to what happens immediately,” Kenji says, “I think there's still plenty for Talos, Minuet, and Dragonness to do in terms of rounding up petty criminals. We'll arrange for Dragonness to meet with my mom to get up to speed. We should also probably consider what to do about Caleb and whatever gang he's running with now.”

“We'll consult with Tahira on that.” Eva sighs.

“But for now, let her rest for a few days,” I say firmly. “She deserves that. In the meantime...maybe I'll see about making sure dad doesn't get sent to the same place as Everett Rourke. I don't trust the two of them in the same building.”

“I wish Alodia didn't have to go back to California,” Dax remarks. “It might be helpful to have her and all her crew in one place nearby.”

“We've got most of the Catalysts right here in Northbridge,” Poppy points out.

“Yes, but Alodia is their leader. Not to mention that she's Tahira's biological cousin.”

Anything else anyone might have said is cut off when my phone starts to trill my ringtone. I feel my heart flip in my chest. “...It's them...it's the hospital...” Gulping, I thumb on the call and put the phone to my ear. “Grayson Prescott.”

“Mr. Prescott, this is Dr. Edward Nakashima at Northbridge General Hospital. Your father is here in our ICU.”

“My...father...?” I hope I sound convincingly hesitant. “...When...when did he...?”

“Not long ago. He's stable, but his condition is pretty serious. We'd like you to come in so we can discuss everything with you.”

“Yes. Yes, of course. I'll be right there.” I thumb off the call, rubbing a hand over my face. “...I guess it's showtime...”

I feel a hand on my shoulder. When I turn to look, I am a little startled to find that it's Eva, looking sympathetically down at me.

“You could probably use some company on the way. I'll come with you.”

“I...you don't have to do that...”

“It's no trouble. My dad's there, too. I'm a little overdue to visit him, what with this whole rescuing Tahira from an alien dimension thing.”

I nod slowly, feeling a faint smile on my lips. “In that case, I'd definitely welcome the company.”

 

Tahira

 

After tea and cookies with my mother, I treat myself to a hot shower and nestle into a pair of soft pajamas before drifting towards my bed. My childhood bedroom is pretty much the way I left it when I moved into my own apartment after college. It's lost a few items over the years as I've brought things with me, and most of my old books and toys have been donated to charity. But a few particularly sentimental items are still around.

I sit down on the edge of the bed and pick up the cuddly toy lamb resting against the pillow. My favorite toy, a left over from my baby days. Her well-worn fluff is baby blue on her head and body, white on her face and ears. When I was two years old, I dug into the depths of my imagination and came up with a name for her, christening her Blue Lamby—or “Boo Wammy”, in baby speak. Eventually, Mom and I accepted that her official name was Boowammy. I pick up the lamb and her head flops back on her neck. Her stuffing has all been irreversably pushed into her head and her body from years of being carried around the neck. I support the back of her head with my hand, lifting her face so that I can look into her button eyes.

Did you miss me, old friend? I ask her. There's no need to speak aloud. Everyone knows stuffed animals are telepathic. But a flex of my wrist makes her nod.

Of course, Tahira. I always miss you when you're not here.

I've become a superhero. Did I ever get around to telling you that?

You didn't need to tell me. I always knew. I know everything about you. It's my job.

Thanks for not telling Mom. I guess she found out anyway, but I'm glad she didn't hear it from you.

Keeping secrets is also part of my job.

I chuckle a little. I place my lamb aside as I turn down the covers and crawl underneath. But as I lay my head on the pillow, I draw her under the blankets with me, my arms cinched around her permanently flattened neck.

* * *

I wake up the next morning to the smell of coffee and the familiar sounds of Mom puttering around in the kitchen. For a moment, it's blissful and nostalgic, until I realize I can hear voices. I sneak into the bathroom to take a quick shower and put some clothes on before I go investigate.

I find Alodia in the kitchen, working her way through a mixed fruit salad while my mother sips coffee and nibbles toast. Dressed in regular clothes, her baby bump is much more obvious than it was while she was wearing the armor. It's still fairly small, though. She smiles when she sees me.

“Hi.”

“Good morning,” I reply. “I admit I wasn't expecting to see you again so soon.”

“I know it's early, but I have to go back to California this evening, and it's going to take awhile to tell you everything you need to know, so I wanted to start right away.”

“I see.”

Mom stands up and pulls out a chair for me. “Sit down, sweetheart. Let me make you some oatmeal?”

“Yeah, okay.” I sit down, feeling my belly fluttering with anxiety. It's not that I don't think I can trust Alodia. I actually trust her completely, in spite of barely knowing her. It's just that I'm not sure I want to know everything that she's going to tell me. But I suppose I never really had a choice. I was always going to learn it all someday. Might as well be today.

Alodia tells me everything. Absolutely everything. She tells me her story, and what she knows of mine. What she knows of our fathers' race, the power of their will. The Prism Crystal is her life energy, left behind to call her home and repair the timelines. The power that I gained from it is my birthright. She tells me about her Catalysts. About Everett Rourke. The Endless. Vaanu. While she talks, I eat a bowl of oatmeal and some cinnamon raisin toast. By the time she finishes, nearly four hours have passed and I'm starting to feel hungry again. But primal needs are somewhat overwhelmed as I try to process everything I've been told. Mom drifted out awhile ago to give us some privacy. I guess she's been told everything once already.

“So...what happens now?” I finally ask.

“Now, I go back to my life and you go back to yours. You've got a city to protect, and I've got a baby on the way.”

“I know, but...” I glance briefly at my mother. “I mean...you're my cousin. I don't know about you, but that sort of means something to me.”

“It means something to me, too. I'm not suggesting we should lose touch. Though...in time, I think for the benefit of my human aunt and uncle, if they ever find out about you, we should say that we found each other through one of those DNA testing services. I'll tell them I wanted to know if my dad had any relatives I wasn't aware of.”

“Fair enough.” I look at her for a long moment. She doesn't look much like me. Physically, she's pretty much my exact opposite, small and fair to my tall and dark. But we're kin. “...We're quite a pair, aren't we.”

She smiles the brave, weary smile of someone who has been on a difficult mission for a worthy cause. “Yeah. When I first came back, I was terrified that I wasn't meant to be here. A dozen things have come up that have slowly convinced me that I am, though. And meeting you has definitely been a big one.”

“Yeah?”

“It's like I told your parents: we've both fought hard for this world. Fought and sacrificed and survived for the world, and the people who matter to us here. It's our home.”

I look down into my empty oatmeal bowl, drying on the table in front of me. I really should be soaking it in the sink.

“...I gotta admit...when my mom first told me that I had come from another dimension, I didn't react well.”

“No?”

“...I didn't speak to her for three days. ...I had barely started speaking to her again when...” I trail off, swallowing against the knot in my throat.

“...When you fought Silas Prescott.”

“...Yeah...”

“...I had just gotten married when I learned that I was the missing piece of the Island's Heart. ...I didn't react well, either. I mean, I managed to put on a brave face, but I was so fucking pissed at the whole situation.” She sighs. “But...as my father told me...you cannot control your circumstances. Only how you react to them.”

“...Not exactly comforting in your situation.”

“Not at all,” she concedes.

“...Dax actually told me something comforting when I was freaking out about the fact that I was from another dimension. He...lies awake at night worrying about multiverses or something. I think...it's the fact that time and space are infinite scares him, and the idea of infinite dimensions makes him feel...helpless. But anyway, what he told me is that this is my life. Here. That it doesn't matter if I was born in another dimension. This is where I live. Where I made my life and my home and my family. So this is where I belong.”

“Definitely a much more comforting thing to hear during an existential crisis,” she quips. Then she sighs. “Full confession: I highly doubt anything is over yet. For either of us. Everett Rourke knows I'm alive. And he's no idiot. I'm betting it won't take him long to realize I had something to do with bringing you back.”

“The good news there is that now that the two sides of the family have met, we're going to be much stronger. We should exchange contact information. When it all hits the fan, we need to be ready.”

 

Michelle

 

By the time my shift starts the next morning, Silas Prescott has been stabilized, but he has not regained consciousness by the time I finally get around to having my lunch at three in the afternoon. I make quick work of a bland chicken salad sandwich and a side of even blander french fries, and settle back in my chair, closing my eyes for a moment.

We did it. We brough Tahira home. Whatever comes next, that small success is ours to cherish. At least for the moment, we can go back to our lives. I have a wedding to plan now. I open my eyes and dig out my phone to place a call. After two rings, I hear the voice on the other end.

“Hey, Michelle.”

“Hi, Alodia. I'm glad I caught you. I wasn't sure if you were already going to be on the plane home.”

“No, not yet, but we should be heading to the airport soon. What's up? How's Prescott?”

“You'll have to ask Grayson. I can't say without breaking confidentiality.”

“Ahh. Right. So...what's up?”

“There's something I wanted to ask you while you were on the east coast, but with everything else, I didn't get around to it.” I take a deep breath, feeling strangely apprehensive. “...Will you be my maid of honor?”

“Me? You're asking me to be your maid of honor?”

“Yeah. I am. I know you're going to be almost full term by the time of the wedding, and we can make whatever accommodations you need. We could have a chair for you standing by, Quinn could be my back-up maid of honor if you need to drop out at any point...anything. If you don't think you'll be up to it, that's okay, too. It's all up to you and you don't have to decide right away. I...” I trail off a moment, swallowing. “...It was just really important to me to ask you before anyone else.”

“Really...? I mean...in the five years I was gone, the others were still here. I wouldn't even have been surprised if you'd made new friends in that time you might want to ask more than any of us...”

“Trust me, Alodia. No one in the world will every understand me the way the Catalysts do. I've got good friends here at the hospital. Even close friends. But you guys are family in a way that no one else could ever be. And as to whether I'd want to ask one of the other girls...I've definitely gotten a lot closer to all of them in the last five years. ...But I wouldn't have Sean if it weren't for you, and I think they'll all understand how important it is that you have the first chance to stand up beside me while I become his wife. They'll all be bridesmaids anyway, so it isn't as if I'm leaving anyone out. Like I said, you don't have to answer right away. I know with the baby--”

“Michelle, of course I'll be your maid of honor! It would be my honor! I mean, obviously if River makes trouble, I'll deal with that, but as long as that doesn't put you off...”

“Honestly, there was a time in my life when the thought of a wedding with a pregnant bridesmaid, much less a pregnant maid of honor, would have made me cringe. Back when my closest friends were the superficial bitches who ended up betraying me. Back when everything to me was about status and power and showing off...”

“...I'm proud of who you are now, Michelle.”

I snort, but there's a grin splitting my face. “Those hormones are making you sappy.”

“Maybe, but it's true.”

“Hey, I have to get back to work, and I should let you get back to California. I'll be going dress-shopping with the girls soon. We'll make sure to send pictures so you can give your two cents.”

“Talk to you soon then. Love you.”

“Love you too, you pregnant sap. Thank you.”

 

Jake

 

Alodia spends the flight home up in the cockpit with me and Mike while Diego and Varyyn presumably screw like rabbits in Castor's bedroom. That's fine with me. There's something I've been meaning to bring up.

“You know, Princess, since you're carrying my baby and all, I think it might be about time for you to meet my parents.”

“That is...not an unreasonable request,” she concedes. “...How much do they actually know about me?”

“Less than Rebecca knows. But I told them about you five years ago. Back when I thought I'd lost you. And I told them you'd come back. ...I got a call once the story of your reappearance broke asking if you were the same Alodia Chandler. ...And they know you're pregnant.”

“Wow. That's a little more than I was expecting them to know. Not that I'm complaining.”

“Probably a little less intimidating to think that your in-laws already know you exist than to think that you might be dropping in on them without them knowing anything and being pregnant to boot when you do,” Mike remarks.

“Frankly, yes,” she agrees. She's smirking a little when I look back at her, but there is anxiety nipping at the edges of her features. “...Do they approve of me?”

“They don't even know you yet, Princess.”

“I know, but...” She sighs. “I just can't help thinking how my aunt and uncle and Diego's parents reacted to you...”

It's my turn to smirk a little. “Heh...yeah, well. I'm a shady ex-military type with shaggy hair. Not the type parents generally take kindly to right off the bat.”

She reaches over and vigorously rubs my head. “I like your shaggy hair.”

I catch her hand and bring it to my lips to press a kiss to her fingertips. “I'll be honest, my parents are a little wary. But they're wary because they think I symbolically married you after knowing you for only six months, and now I'm shacking up with you after you've been gone for five years.”

“...Whereas in reality, you married me in a tribal ceremony after having consciously known me for a few weeks, plus two-thousand one-hundred thirty-nine time loops. Plus the whole shacking up after I've been gone for five years thing.”

“Yeah. The point is, they're wary because they think I'm rushing into things, they're concerned that this might be a fading infatuation and that this whole unplanned pregnancy thing is gonna trap me in something I don't really want. But with all that, they ain't judging you. They ain't sittin' there thinking you got some ulterior motive without even knowing you. They ain't the type. They'll question my judgment in getting hitched so fast and sticking it out even after five years of you missing. They might question yours in saying yes to me when I asked you. You'll probably get a pass on staying with me five years later considering what you went through in the meantime. They ain't gonna go into this preparing to dislike you. Once they know you, they're gonna love you. And you're gonna love them. Promise.”

She's quiet for a moment. “So, when do I meet the family?”

“They've invited us to Louisiana for Thanksgiving. Think your family in California will be willing to spare you?”

“For Thanksgiving? I can promise you my folks won't even realize I'm gone.”

 

Grayson

 

My father's brain is swollen. Or it was. At least, I think that's what the doctor meant. They kept me waiting for awhile when I first arrived, and when the doctor showed up, I couldn't exactly follow what he was telling me. What I did gather was that Dad responded well to treatment, and that his vital functions are intact. But he hasn't regained consciousness. I've barely left his side. I've gone to the bathroom when I can't hold it anymore. Eva brought me something to eat from the cafeteria this morning, which was thoughtful of her. Michelle Nguyen did the same later. I think I thanked them both, but probably not as warmly as I should have. I hope they understand.

I don't know why I'm sitting here. I guess Dad would probably do the same for me. ...But maybe not. Maybe he would react the same way he reacted after Mom died, pulling away, burying himself in his work. ...Maybe he stopped caring a long time ago. Somehow, I can't bring myself to believe that. But...neither can I entirely convince myself that he hasn't.

I wish Tahira were here with me. She's always been there when I needed someone to lean on. Since we were in college together, since I was the senior overloaded with classes and she was the smart, confident freshman who always knew whether she needed to drag me to the library for a study session or make me put the books away and go out for the evening. We only had a year to get to know each other then, but we kept in touch on and off for the next three years while I worked for Dad, and she finished her business degree. Then, she applied to Prescott Industries, became my assistant, was exposed to the Prism Crystal, became a superhero and a pawn in my father's game...

… I want her here with me now. But I can't ask her. Of course not. My father has hurt her more than anyone. He used her. I guess I can't help loving him, because he's my dad. But I can't ask her to put aside her own pain to support me now.

A rustling in the hospital bed sends an electric jolt down my spine. My dad's head rolls lazily back and forth on the pillow. I leap to my feet, cautiously taking his hand.

“...Dad...? Dad, can you hear me...?” His eyelids flutter.

“...Gr-Grayson...?” His voice is a weak croak, and he struggles to focus on my face.

“It's me, Dad.”

His gaze drifts around the hospital room. “Wh-where...?”

“In the hospital, Dad. In Northbridge.”

“T-Tahira...?”

“She's safe.” An edge has entered my voice. “She's safe at home. Which is more than I can say for some people in this city, thanks to you. Do you remember what you did?”

“I...I found it...I found my way to...” His eyes suddenly fly open. On the monitor beside his bed, his heart rate spikes sharply. “Helena!”

I feel my body go cold as my blood drains into my feet. “Wh-what?”

“Where is she? Where is my Helena?”

“What?! Dad, Mom's dead! She has been for almost twenty-five years!”

“No!” he growls. “No! It can't be! I was there! I was so close!”

He tries to sit up, and the monitors start shrieking as his blood pressure and heart rate climb. I put my hands on his shoulders, trying to ease him back onto the bed, but his hands shoot out to grab my shoulders instead, tightening until the pressure is painful. I squirm, but I don't try to get away. He's still fighting the weight of my hands, pushing him back onto the bed.

“Dad, stop! You need to rest!”

“I need my wife! Where is Tahira?! Where is that brat?! She has to know! She has to know what she's done!”

There are doctors and nurses rushing in now, untangling me and my father, pushing a needle into his IV line and squeezing the plunger. I shrink, my eyes on my father's face as his struggles slowly cease and he settles back onto the bed. His heart rate slows to normal. The nurse turns to me. He's asking me something. Or telling me something. I can't focus. I can't comprehend him.

“I...have to be up early tomorrow,” I mutter. “Please call me if anything changes.”

I rush into the hallway. Push past the police officers that are standing guard outside his room. I don't stop rushing until I'm outside in the parking lot. And even then, I keep pacing. I want to throw up. I want to scream. I want to cry. I want to do all three at once, and then I want to throw things. I can feel that I've begun crying as I pull out my phone and place a call.

“...Hey, Grayson.” Tahira's voice comes down the line, gentle and calming. I draw in a shuddering breath.

“My dad woke up...”

“How is he?”

“He...started babbling about you. And my mom. I don't think he was fully lucid because he started getting aggressive, and they had to sedate him...”

A pause. “I'm sorry, Grayson.”

Before I realize that I'm going to do it, I dissolve into tears. “Oh, god...Tahira...I...I don't know what to do here. ...I know I shouldn't ask, but...I...I think I need you here...I need help. I can't handle this alone. Please...tell me what I should do...”

She is quiet for a long moment. Finally, she sighs. “Go home. Wait for me on the balcony.”

* * *

I've been at the hospital long enough that the sun has gone down again. Tahira is already waiting for me on the balcony when I get home. Or rather, Dragonness is. I've calmed down enough by then that I can't help grinning a little when I see her.

“My hero,” I quip. “Flying to my rescue.”

“That's me. ...But do you mind if I come in so I can take my mask off at least?”

“Of course. Right.” I step aside to let her through, and draw the curtains over the windows. Safely inside, Dragonness takes her mask off, and there is Tahira Rogers in front of me, dressed in a dark-colored supersuit. The last time we were together in this room was the day before my father attacked Northbridge...

...I'm crying again, and I'm not sure when it started. Tahira draws me into her arms, guiding me to the couch. I go where she leads me, clinging to her while I sob.

“I'm so sorry, Tahira...I'm so sorry for what he did to you...what he did to everyone...”

“I know, Grayson. It's not your fault.”

“I...I know...but...” I tighten my grip, burying my face in her neck like a frightened child. “...For ten weeks, everyone has told me I'm not to blame for what my father did. The families of the people who died have told me they don't hold me responsible for my father's actions. I cried for them, I cried for you, I cried for my father...I felt helpless, but...I never felt...broken...

“But now you do?”

I pull back to look at her, blinking back a film of tears. She raises a hand to cup my cheek, her dark eyes gentle and sympathetic. I swallow hard.

“...It's...different now that he's back. Now that both of you are back. I just...I'm so angry with him, and I don't understand how it all happened...how I never saw it coming...God, Tahira, why? Why would he do a thing like that?!”

Something like fear flickers across her face. Fear and sadness and...resignation. She sighs.

“...For your mother, Grayson. For you.”

I feel my head get foggy, resisting understanding. Numbness creeps in as my blood rushes against my eardrums in a frantic attempt to drown out her words. I think I manage to croak out the appropriate question. She takes my hands as she answers, holding my eyes with hers.

“...This world couldn't save your mother. Couldn't bring her back to him. He thought another world might be able to.”

I feel something cold creep in to banish the numbness. “...Is that what he told you he was doing?”

She nods. “The last thing he said to me before we were consumed was, 'Maybe someday soon, my son will have a mother again'.”

I recoil. Not from her exactly, or from the truth of what she's telling me. But the words themselves hit me like the lash of a whip. I turn sharply away, burying my face in my hands.

“God...god! How...how could he possibly...” I raise my head to look at her again, knowing my desperation is in my face and my voice. “I miss her, too! I've missed her every day since she died, and I wish she hadn't...and...I admit, I've wished for a way to bring her back, but...I mean, when I learned there was a way to bring you back, I went for it. But I never...”

“You never used my cousin. The way your dad used me. You never let anyone get hurt. At least, not anyone who hadn't already agreed to the risks.” I nod weakly. She puts a hand on my cheek again. “You're a good man, Grayson Prescott.”

I've always liked to think I am. But if Tahira Rogers tells me it's true, I feel like I can believe it. “...What happens now?”

She smiles ruefully. “That's the big question, isn't it. ...Alodia doesn't think anything is over yet. But maybe for awhile, we can get back to something like ordinary. Or whatever resembles ordinary in our situation.” She pauses. “...I...may need a new job. I told your dad I quit just a few days before the big battle.”

I can't help smiling a little. “Last I checked, you worked for me, not my father. Which is especially true now that I'm in charge of his company. Unless...you'd rather find something else.”

“Heck no,” she snorts. “Not if you still want me there.”

“Of course I still want you!” Realizing what I've just said, I feel heat creep up my neck. “I mean...to work for me. If you want to work for me. I...”

She mercifully shuts me up when she presses her mouth to mine, winding her arms around my neck. I raise my hands to her face, threading my fingers through the silky black waves of her hair. Too soon, she breaks the kiss, pressing her forehead to mine.

“You're too funny,” she chuckles breathily. “We've already slept together, but you're still embarrassed to say that you want me?”

“I don't like to be crude,” I retort. “Besides, you slept with me the night before you went off to battle. I could have been a last fling for all I know.”

She sits back slightly, her hands still clasped behind my neck, and looks me in the eye. “I spent the night with you because I knew if I died without ever having asked to spend the night in your arms, I would die with regret. Grayson Prescott, I've been in love with you since college.”

And just like that, I know everything will be all right. I pull her close and kiss her hungrily. She straddles my lap, pressing her hips to mine.

“...I want you, Tahira Rogers,” I whisper against her mouth. “I'm in love with you. I have been for years.”

“You have me,” she whispers back. “I want you, too.”

I capture her mouth with mine again, tasting her tongue and the backs of her teeth. I want to see her. Touch her. Really touch Tahira Rogers, not Dragonness. I tug at her supersuit, searching for a clasp or a zipper or... Good lord, what kind of trap did Dax sew her into with this thing. I hear her chuckle.

“Looking for something?”

“How do you get in and out of this thing?”

She sits back on her heels, grinning. One hand slips behind her back and touches something. I can't see what she's doing, but her hand is barely back there for a second before the front of her costume starts to sag. She reaches up to slide the dark bodysuit off her shoulders. I feel myself trembling with anticipation as her body emerges from the costume; her clavicles, her pert breasts, her muscular arms, and her flat, firm stomach... She eases off me and stands up to peel the bodysuit the rest of the way off. Oh, god help me, she's naked underneath. Completely bare. Tahira Rogers is naked in my living room for the second time ever. She smiles at me.

“Do you like what you see?”

My mouth is too dry to form words. I swallow, nodding dumbly. She returns to straddle my lap again. Her hands on my chest, she leans down to kiss me again. I let my hands span her waist, trailing my fingers over her bare skin. Tomorrow, I'll have to go back to the hospital. I'll have to face the consequences of my father's return.

But tomorrow is a long time from now.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jake

Every so often, when I'm pulling up to the beach house after a day at work, I'm struck all over again by the grandeur of the place where I'm currently living. There was a time I might have actively rebelled against living in opulent splendor. Having grown up in more modest surroundings myself, the time was such luxury would have felt suffocating. And if Alodia weren't living in this place with me, I think it still would. But her presence could make a damp, moldy cave into a home for me, and it can certainly do as much for a waterfront mansion in California. Besides, there's no denying that it's gonna be an amazing place to raise our kid.

I park the car and make my way around to the front door. I hang up my keys in the foyer and wander into the kitchen to grab a cold glass of water. With temperatures squeaking past eighty degrees Fahrenheit, it's unusually hot today for October, even in southern California. Through the dining room window, I can see Varyyn on the deck, doing some kind of Vaanti tai chi or something. Another advantage to this place is that the property is enclosed enough that Varyyn can actually enjoy the beach for awhile without drawing attention to himself. I fill a glass with tapwater, top it off with a couple cubes from the icemaker in the freezer door, and make my way out into the balmy autumn air. Varyyn pauses when he sees me.

“Good afternoon, Jake. I didn't realize it was so late already.”

“It's almost seven. Either of our spouses home?”

“Yours is. The last I knew, she was resting. Diego called to say he will likely be late tonight.”

I nod in acknowledgment and go up to the bedroom I share with my wife. Alodia isn't in bed when I get there, but I can hear the shower going in the bathroom. I tug off my work clothes and hang them up, lying down on the bed in my boxers to wait for her. She emerges within a few minutes, a bathrobe wrapped around her body, her wet hair hanging loose around her shoulders. She grins when she sees me.

“What, no rose between your teeth?” she quips.

“Oh, you thought this was for your benefit?” I tease back. “I was just waiting for a shower.”

She chuckles, shrugging. “Well, you know you're basically a piece of meat to me.” She makes her way to sit on the edge of the bed and bends to kiss me. “Mmm, you taste like afternoon coffee.”

“You taste like toothpaste. Much more pleasant.” I tug lightly at the edge of her robe, folded over her swollen breasts. “Is this for my benefit?”

“If you tread lightly. They're still tender.”

I withdraw my hand to find hers. “Probably for the best at the moment. I'm guessing I don't smell much better than I taste. I've been sweating in a business suit all day.”

“I was sweating through dance classes most of my day.”

I prop myself up on my elbow, looking at her with concern as I reach out to tuck a strand of wet hair behind her ear.

“Are you sure you should be dancing right now?”

“Relax, Top Gun. I'm mostly marking. Not doing anything River and I can't handle...” She trails off, averting her eyes. Her profile settles into a frown. I sit up, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“...You okay, Princess?”

“I...went into the poolhouse earlier...”

I exhale slowly. The poolhouse. Where we've been keeping the trunk we got from the crystal planet. The trunk containing the Andromeda idol.

“...Did you...?”

“No. ...I didn't want to alone. ...It's active, though. It was calling me. It's calmed down now, but...I could feel it.”

“You know it's gonna keep up until you touch it.”

“I know. But as long as I can—ung!” She cuts herself off with a sharp gasp, pitching forward slightly and clutching her belly.

“Alodia!” I launch myself off the bed, kneeling in front of her. “What is it, Princess? Are you okay?”

She raises her head, her eyes wide. “...They moved. ...Jake, our baby moved!” She breaks into a grin, laughing dazedly. “River Skye is alive!”

“...River...?” I let my hand drift to her belly. She smiles a little.

“You may not be able to feel anything yet,” she cautions, even as she opens her robe to place my hand on the swell. I wait for a moment, my hand pressed flat to her belly.

“I...I don't know...I can't tell if I'm feeling River or gas.”

She laughs. “Trust me, I feel River.”

“Hell, Princess, that's good enough for me.” I rise to press my lips to hers. “My beautiful wife. Mother of my child.”

I kiss her again. And I keep kissing her. I want to distract her. I want her to forget about that amber thing in the poolhouse. I know it's ultimately futile. But just for now...just for a little while...

 

Lila

 

Five years ago, I woke up in a hospital in Florida. The last thing I could remember was lying on the floor, surrounded by the bodies of Arachnid soldiers. I was satisfied, knowing that I had protected the Selected, that I had covered their escape. I thought I was dead. But there I was, in a hospital bed and a gown with a needle in my hand. On the television set mounted to the corner of the ceiling, I watched Mr. Rourke being led out of a courtroom in handcuffs, shouting about the crystal people coming for us all.

Things were a little bit of a blur when I got out of the hospital. I gave them a false name as a precaution, and it stuck. As far as the Selected knew, Lila Sethi was dead, so that was what everyone else assumed. I made my way to my apartment before they could clear it out and broke in to gather a few personal affects, and that was the last of Lila Sethi. It was easy enough to start again. Sure, there were a few rough months while I scraped some money together, but I know how to get by on the streets. I stole, I begged, I did chores, I even turned a few tricks. And eventually, I found myself working retail in New York for a little over minimum wage. I never seriously considered going back to Rourke International. Now that Aleister and Estela were in charge, I doubt I would have been welcome.

I'm not sure what exactly possessed me to ever visit Mr. Rourke in the hospital. Maybe I just felt sorry for him. I know what it's like to lose everything. Once I believed he could give me back what I had lost. The man I found in that hospital was so different from the one I had known, that I only pitied him more. When I gave him the phone disguised the the hairbrush, one of the things I had managed to recover from my old life, I think I was hoping that having someone friendly to talk to would keep him from losing the last of his humanity. I didn't hear from him for years. Then Alodia came back.

I shouldn't have agreed to observe her. I mean, it was harmless enough at first, but then she discovered she was pregnant. I shouldn't have told him. But I didn't know how to hide it. I don't really know what he's planning. The revival of Project Janus, I guess. But exactly how he'll do that without the Island's Heart or the Endless...

… I think he means to use Alodia. But there isn't any proof that she has any power outside of the island, especially now that the time bubble has been destroyed.

Maybe that's the best I can hope for. That she doesn't have any power left and that Mr. Rourke will realize that before he hurts anyone.

No. Dammit, Lila, don't be stupid. You know that's not good enough. The best you can do now is to get out! Cut him off. Don't answer when he calls. He can't hurt you. He can't hurt you and he doesn't care. Just forget about him. Live your new life, free of his influence.

… My phone is ringing. I know who it will be before I even look at the screen.

“No,” I growl to myself, clapping my hands over my ears and screwing my eyes shut. “Don't answer him. You were free before. You died free! Stay free! This is your second chance!”

The ringing stops, and I open my eyes. My phone has gone dark. Then a missed call notification pops up on the screen. I hesitantly lower my hands from my ears. I realize that I'm trembling. My fingertip leaves streaks on the screen as I hastily delete the notification before I'm tempted to call back.

Block him, Lila. Just block him.

My screen lights up again, my phone trilling a ringtone. In my teenage years, I saw many people who were addicted to drugs. Heroin. Cocaine. Meth. Opiates. I watched their minds and bodies drive them mercilessly towards the next fix, sometimes driving them to death. Some addictions didn't reach the body. But an addiction in the mind could be just as deadly. Pot, pornography, gambling. At fourteen, I was the one to identify my foster-brother's body when his gambling debts landed him in hot water with the wrong people. It's his face in my mind when I tap the green button on my phone.

“...H-hello?”

“Lila, dear. Listen carefully. I have a job for you.”

 

Kenji

 

“A Halloween party?”

“Yeah! Seriously, what's with those faces? It's a great idea?”

Mid-morning on a Friday, Grayson and Tahira sit across from me in a booth at the Grand. It's the perfect time for a business meeting. Not even the cleaning staff are here at this hour. I just can't believe that they both look so skeptical.

“It's not that it isn't a great idea,” Tahira says quickly. “It's just...Halloween is a week away. And logistically, that's cutting it kinda close.”

“Hey, you can let me worry about the details. The Grand remains the biggest party scene in Bayside, and we're missing out on huge profits if we don't take advantage of such a big party night.”

“Halloween's on a Tuesday,” Grayson points out. “Most people will be working the next morning.”

“That doesn't stop most people,” I retort. “...But, I can see your point. Maybe we can run the specials all weekend. Half-price drinks, half-price admission for anyone in costume, that sort of thing. Maybe we can get a band or two to play for a few hours each night.”

Tahira nudges Grayson lightly. “...We both know the Hartfeld students like to drive up to Northbridge for Halloween weekend. It's a big money opportunity. And the whole reason for reopening the Grand was to revitalize Bayside. I don't think we can avoid to miss many opportunities.”

Grayson sighs. “...Is this really what you want to be worrying about right now, Tahira?” he asks softly. Tahira and I exchange a glance. Grayson has been welcomed into our confidence, and he fits in so easily that it's sometimes easy to forget that he hasn't lived with the whole double-life thing as long as Tahira and Eva and I have.

“Don't worry about me, Grayson. I've gotten good at balancing Tahira and Dragonness.”

“Right...of course.”

“Listen, Grayson. With everything you're going through, no one's going to expect you to make an appearance.”

“But maybe I should. To show them that I don't intend to let my Dad retake the company. That I don't intend to let him dictate my business decisions, and that I'm still committed to revitalizing Bayside, not bulldozing it.”

“Hey, that's the spirit!” I say encouragingly. “Hey, the way I figure it, with everything we've been through lately, we all deserve a few nights to cut loose. Especially you two.”

 

Craig

 

It's been way too long since Zahra and I really had some proper time alone together. And with both of us off for the day on Sunday, we spend Saturday evening plotting the perfect day in. The fact that Sunday is rainy and chilly just makes it better. We stay in bed having sex until at least noon. When we finally leave the bed, we take the blankets with us to curl up on the couch, drink coffee, and play classic video games while we wait for the pizza we ordered. For awhile, there is nothing else in the world but me and Zahra, cuddling under a worn-out comforter while our sprites whale on each other on the screen.

“Oh, you still comin' at me, Player Two? You're about two hits away from dead, you might as well just lie down and accept your fate!”

“Nuh-uh! Power up! Boom! Health bar restored, and now you're at half!”

“What?! Where the hell did you pick that up?!”

“Not my fault you were too distracted to notice when it fell from the sky!”

“Yeah, well screw you! I'm gonna beat you anyway!”

“Oh, yeah? How do you figure that?”

“'Cause I always do!”

And of course, thirty seconds later, she does, with a massive bolt of lightning. I groan, letting the controller fall into my lap.

“Daaaamn. Gorgeous woman who has sex with me and beats me at video games? I'm so in love with you, Zahra.”

She blushes, which makes me smirk. I always feel a little smug when I can get her to blush. Predictably, she covers it by swatting me.

“Shut up and kiss me already, loser.”

I do as she tells me, then pull back with a grin. “Okay, I'm bored with that game. Let's play Jump Bros Racing instead. Then at least I'll stand half a chance.”

By the time the pizza arrives, the combination of the gray day outside, the lamps inside, and an hour or so staring at the TV screen has my vision all wonky. I blink and rub my eyes, trying to force them to see colors properly again as I stumble to the door. I thank the delivery guy, push the tip into his hand, and go back to the couch, balancing two large pizza boxes on my hands. The smell of cheese, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms, and pepperoni reminds me that I haven't eaten all day. My stomach rumbles. Zahra, who picked up her phone while I was getting the pizza, snorts.

“Jesus, Craig. Your stomach growls louder than you fart.”

“But not louder than I burp,” I retort. She snickers and pushes on my head.

“Got a text from Kenji. They're planning a big Halloween weekend bash at the Grand, and he wants my band to play. He's offering $300 since it's short notice, and he'll throw in another $50 if we agree to do two nights.”

“Dope. You gonna do it?”

“Well, obviously, I'll have to talk to everyone, make sure they can all make it, but for that kinda money at the Grand, I think I'd be an idiot not to. ...Only problem is, we haven't really had a rehearsal since...well, since before the Catalyst reunion. Just with the way everything's been so crazy...”

“Yeah...it kinda has been. ...But hey, today is about forgetting all the crazy, right? Let's concentrate on eating this pizza. Then we can marathon Seven Crystals until our eyes bleed.”

“Oh, God, yes!” She tosses her phone aside and dives for the top pizza box, pulling out a hot, gooey slice. She sucks the point into her mouth and chomps down, tearing it off like a wild animal devouring its prey. I can't help grinning.

“Are you aware that you're the sexiest thing on two legs?”

She pokes one leg out from under the blanket and pulls up the leg of her pajama pants. “Two legs that I haven't shaved in two days?”

I pretend to examine the dark, stubbly hairs on her calf. Then I imitate her, poking my own leg out. “I haven't shaved my legs in two years!”

“You shaved your legs two years ago?”

“Uhh...no. I guess not. So, I haven't shaved my legs in...ever. But you can still be my leg-hair buddy, even if you're not as hairy as me.”

She laughs, putting her leg down and taking another bite of pizza. “Eat your pizza, scrublord. I need my Player Two if I'm gonna get through Seven Crystals.

 

Estela

 

Until I'm back in it, I sometimes forget how much chilly air can feel like pain. These past months, I went right from San Trobida to La Huerta to Northbridge and southern California in high summer, and then back to San Trobida. It was still summer when I returned to Northbridge to help my brother investigate Silas Prescott and his machine. Now a true New England autumn has officially crowded out summer. That's the other thing I've learned to dislike about the transition from summer to winter in the northeastern United States. Unlike the change between the tropical and frigid zones on La Huerta, this one comes on gradually, and I end up feel like the proverbial frog in a pot, not recognizing the change until one day I walk outside and my extremities start going numb.

Even with a jacket, scarf, and gloves, I can still feel it nipping at me as I make my way down the sidewalk in the early afternoon sunshine. I wouldn't even be out in it, but I needed a change of scene. I head toward Michelle and Quinn's apartment. I know that Michelle and Sean will both be at work about now, but maybe Quinn has a little time to spare. I could use some company right now besides my mother.

Much to my relief, when I arrive at my destination and press the buzzer, Quinn's voice sounds on the intercom.

“Who is it?”

“Hey, Quinn. It's Estela. I hope I'm not interrupting anything.”

“Nothing that can't wait. Just a sec, I'll buzz you up.”

I hear the soft buzz and the click of the lock, and yank the door open. Blessed warmth wafts over me as I step inside the lobby. The feeling is returning to my digits by the time I reach Quinn's unit. She's waiting for me with the door propped open. The smell of cinnamon and cloves drifts into the hallway.

“Come on in. I was just making some cider. Want to try some? It's nice and warm, just off the stove.”

“Anything warm sounds heavenly right now,” I reply, slipping off my coat and hanging it in the closet. “Sorry to drop in unexpectedly. I hope I'm not intruding.”

“If you were, I wouldn't have let you in,” she replies, waving a hand dismissively. “Sit down. Take a load off.”

I obey, sitting down at the kitchen table. Murphy immediately jumps up into my lap, cooing. I rub his cool, silky ears around the bases, and he trills with pleasure. Quinn ladles cider into two mugs printed with brightly-colored cartoon characters, and joins me at the table, sitting across from me. I cup the mug between my hands, letting the heat of the cider penetrating the ceramic warm my hands.

“So what brings you my way?”

I sigh. “I needed a change of scene, I suppose. Some space to think in.”

“Perhaps you're also looking for someone to share your thoughts with, since you seem to have sought out company.”

I take a warm, sweet sip from my mug. “Perceptive, aren't you.”

She smiles a little. “I try. So what's on your mind?”

“...Mom is talking about going back to San Trobida. To spend time with my Tio.”

“...How is she going to explain her ressurection to your Tio?”

“She hasn't decided yet. She has promised to leave Alodia out of her explanation. I'm mostly trying to decide whether I want to go back with her.”

She raises an eyebrow. “That's in question?”

“Should it not be? The Catalysts are all here in the States...”

“We've mostly been in the States for the last five years, but you've never felt the need to leave San Trobida for more than a visit or business. Even if you've been forced to delay, as far as I knew, you never questioned eventually going back.”

I snort a little. “You make me sound like the slightly estranged or...independent sister. You know, the one who breezes in a few times a year to give presents and then disappears again.”

She chuckles. “You know I don't mean it like that. We're family, the eleven—the twelve—of us. But we're not in college anymore, not all living in one place. And that's okay. We have lives and families outside of each other, as we should. That's the whole reason Alodia gave herself up, was to give us that. San Trobida has always been your home. It's where your blood family is.”

“Except for my brother. And my nephew.”

“True. Still, it's where the family that raised you is.” She frowns slightly. “And I would have thought you would want to stay with your mother. And your boyfriend must be missing you.”

I am quiet for a long moment. I take another long swallow of cider, and place my mug back on the table.

“...I love my mother. I will always love her. But it's been eleven years. I'm not the same person I was when she died.”

“...Is she not able to accept that?”

“It isn't that exactly,” I reply. “She understands that time has passed and I've grown. The problem is that we don't relate to each other the way we used to. I've gotten so used to living without her, having her back is a shock, even taking out the shock that comes just from the fact that she's alive. She understands that. That is, she grasps the concept. But trying to work with that...figure out who we are to each other now... It's like...when your parents realized that you were really and truly cured. Remember how you were always saying that treating you like a sick person was a habit they had to break? Treating you like a sick person and arguing with each other about it?”

“Yeah. ...They were glad I was healthy, of course. But they'd spent so many years stressing about my health that they couldn't let go of it right away.”

“It's a little like that. ...Of course I want her in my life. But I have to figure out how that works with the person I am now. And I'm not sure living under the same roof is the way to figure that out. And as to my boyfriend...he isn't. Anymore.”

Quinn looks up sharply, startled. “What?! When did this happen?!”

“Right about the time we introduced you to Rochelle.”

“But...that was weeks ago. Why didn't you say anything?”

I shrug, keeping my eyes on my cider mug. “We had other things to concern ourselves with. Besides, I...needed time to process.”

“Are you...okay?”

I shrug. “Well, I'm hardly walking on air, but I'm not bitterly torn up, either. I suppose in the end, we simply didn't have enough in common to sustain the relationship. At first it was intense and passionate, but once that initial thrill wore off...” I sigh. “...Honestly, the fact that there's a large part of my life he'll never understand...that no lover could really understand...”

“No lover except another Catalyst, anyway,” she says softly.

“Right. ...I had hoped him being part of the resistance back in the day might have made that part easier to deal with. Maybe it would with the right person...”

“Somet